Philadelphia elections officials are distributing 92,000 absentee ballot applications and promotional fliers in food boxes given out across the city, an effort to reach low-income voters who they fear will risk their health to vote in person or skip voting altogether.

“We have a responsibility,” said Lisa Deeley, chair of the Philadelphia Board of City Commissioners, which oversees elections.

The commissioners gave 32,000 packets to the city for its food boxes, 40,000 to the Philadelphia School District, and 20,000 to the nonprofit Share Food Program.

Data show voters in low-income neighborhoods are requesting mail ballots at disproportionately low rates. That suggests those voters will either show up in person at disproportionate rates or not vote at all. And the commissioners have cut the number of polling places by 77% because of the coronavirus, meaning voters will be gathered at fewer locations than normal, likely increasing crowding and health risks.

Elected officials, community organizations, voting rights activists, and political campaigns have urged people to vote by mail instead, but their work has been made harder by the pandemic, Deeley said.

“We don’t have the ability to see people at community meetings or church gatherings or other places where we would normally be able to do outreach,” she said.

Volunteers grab absentee ballot applications and fliers to stuff into food boxes.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Volunteers grab absentee ballot applications and fliers to stuff into food boxes.

Some voters may be wary of voting by mail because it’s new to them, said Omar Sabir, another city commissioner. Voters may also be unsure that their ballots will be delivered or correctly counted.

“There’s a lot of stigma around voting by mail, and some people are still saying they want to vote in person, but we don’t want you to risk your life for a vote,” he said. “We want you to be safe, that’s our first concern.”

The English and Spanish fliers being distributed in the boxes urge voters to vote by mail in the June 2 primary election as a safe and convenient method. Directly providing an application helps voters who might not be able to go online to request a ballot, which requires a driver’s license or state ID number.

When things ground to a halt in March, the city, School District, and food banks came together to establish a free food program to hand out boxes of groceries and pantry goods at dozens of sites across Philadelphia.

Deeley said she hopes the materials will help boost turnout among low-income voters. The application form in the boxes is not a ballot itself — voters need to fill out the form and mail it back. Once approved, voters will be mailed an absentee ballot to fill out and return.

“This pandemic, and this situation that we find ourselves in as Americans, really, it has taken away so much from us with regard to our freedom," Deeley said. “We certainly want to do all we can to make sure we don’t lose one more thing.”

Absentee ballot applications and fliers in food boxes to be distributed.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Absentee ballot applications and fliers in food boxes to be distributed.