Where’s the urgency in improving voter turnout? | Opinion
Philly ranks among the worst voter-turnout cities, consistently averaging less than a quarter voter turnout in general and primary election cycles. We seem content that just 11 percent of residents are making final decisions on who governs for the rest.
With the 2018 elections now just under 40 days away, worries abound over election security. Bad enough that the American public has dwindling confidence in all levels of government. Worse even that the same public has less confidence in the ability of government to facilitate what should be the very simple yet very consequential practice of elections.
When the topic of election security comes up, we seem lulled into satisfaction that Facebook is handling it. Social-media networks – digital vacuums of narcissism and self-spin on constant loop – are suddenly viewed as essential as the pillar functions of seamless voter registration, adequate voting machines, and complete access to polling places. Russian hackers, who epically punked the American population into choking on its own political and racial insecurities, rise to a higher threat level than the much more dangerous and real American politicians who routinely dismantle voting rights. Election protection is, weirdly, becoming increasingly privatized as Silicon Valley appears more tightly coordinated on the matter than our own federal government. Meanwhile, Trump administration officials offer comically empty promises that election security is a priority when clearly, it's not.
The problem, however, is that from Washington to Philadelphia, we've got our election security priorities twisted.
What's missing is a central focus on total voter access as the key to complete election integrity. You can't expect democratic elections when most voters are missing. This is, in fewer places, nowhere more problematic than in Philadelphia, where that expectation was (ironically) birthed. Yet, Philly ranks among the worst voter-turnout cities, consistently averaging less than a quarter voter turnout in general and primary election cycles. We seem content with just 11 percent of residents making final decisions on who governs for the rest. That should be reason for apoplectic distress among city officials.
The City Commissioners office, tasked with ensuring proper management of elections in Philadelphia, may be increasing registration outreach. But it keeps failing on important stuff: turnout. And with little, if any, pressure from City Hall on that office to reverse disastrous turnout trends (such as appropriating funds based on turnout performance), Philadelphia leaders aren't framing this as the urgent election security issue that it is.
As WURD's city politics expert, Vincent Thompson, points out, "The biggest problem is people are not registered to vote where they live." As a result, untold numbers of voters are walking away from Philadelphia precincts on Election Day. "They go to their West Philly polling place, they don't see their name in the book, and they get frustrated and they don't vote," Thompson said during a recent broadcast on WURD's Reality Check.
A bigger problem is the city commissioners' mind-set on that. As Thompson reports, Chair Lisa Deeley responded that increased turnout is ultimately "up to the candidates."
There is no alarm around anemic Philadelphia voter turnout. Yet, it is the leading measurement for both civic engagement and election security. If alarm was there, then city commissioners would have immediately responded to voter-registration confusion by creating fresh new systems that ensure no voter ever walks away from a polling place.
Philadelphia's turnout woes contribute to a state that, as the Center for American Progress revealed, gets a "D" on election security. How can you achieve free, open, and fair elections if more people are turned away than turning out?
Philadelphia, a largely Democratic Party-run city, loves fashioning itself as virulently anti-Trump. But it hypocritically wades in the subtle totalitarianism of low turnout as it allows blatant forms of voter inaccessibility, reduced civic engagement, and mass confusion. It also, quite frankly, violates the Voting Rights Act. When voters don't have easy recourse to immediately resolve simple registration problems, that's not on the voter, that's on the officials mandated with ensuring smooth election functionality. The absence of such is a form of voter suppression. Voter suppression creates irreparable breaches in election security — and any semblance we think we have of democracy.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and executive producer/host of "Reality Check," a daily public affairs program on WURD radio in Philadelphia. He is also managing editor of ecoWURD, contributor to the Philadelphia Citizen, and principal of D.C.-based B|E Strategy. @ellisonreport.