Philadelphia’s district attorney makes decisions that can change lives and policies that can change communities.
But an uncomfortable reality hangs in the background of Tuesday’s primary election: The voters who will show up to pick the city’s top prosecutor by and large won’t be the people who are most directly affected by that office.
Incumbent DA Larry Krasner, running for reelection as a reform-minded progressive prosecutor, is aiming to repeat his 2017 victory with a coalition of progressives and Black voters from areas with historically high turnout. His challenger, former homicide prosecutor Carlos Vega, hopes to win with largely white, police-friendly voters in Northeast Philadelphia and the Delaware River wards, bolstered by some Latino voters from neighborhoods with lower turnout.
But the young, low-income, Black and Hispanic Philadelphians most likely to encounter the DA’s Office will be largely unheard.
“Criminal justice policy is not very much influenced by people who interact with the criminal justice system,” said Jake Grumbach, a political science professor at the University of Washington.
There are multiple reasons for that disconnect, and Tuesday’s primary highlights the intersection of two well-established truths in politics and criminal justice.
Voters on the whole are whiter, wealthier, older, and better-educated than the overall population. They’re much more likely to be homeowners. And that’s particularly true in low-turnout, low-information, local elections outside a presidential year — especially primaries.
Meanwhile, poor people, people of color, and people with less education are much more likely to be arrested, charged, and convicted, and face more severe outcomes, including in bail and sentencing.
In other words, the factors that suggest whether you’re likely to vote Tuesday are the opposite of those that suggest whether you’re likely to be caught in the criminal justice system. And in Pennsylvania, one group that is particularly close to prosecutorial decisions isn’t allowed to vote at all: people in prison.
In Philadelphia, one in five residents has been arrested and charged before. Areas of the city where crime rates are high — where residents are more likely to be victims of crime — are often the same neighborhoods with a high percentage of people on probation or parole. Those neighborhoods tend to be where voter turnout is lowest.
Turnout shapes campaigning because winning citywide means going where the most voters live, to the detriment of poorer communities, said Mustafa Rashed, a Philadelphia political consultant.
“When you’re campaigning, the first question you ask a person is: Are you registered to vote?” Rashed said. “And if they’re not, and especially if it’s [close to] the election, you stop talking to them.”
When turnout drops, it’s mostly a core group of super-voters who show up.
That means local elections are more skewed — and, thus, local government is often less representative than at the state and federal levels, said Brian Schaffner, a political science professor at Tufts University whose book Hometown Inequality found that low-income residents and people of color have the biggest local representation gaps.
“Local government is mostly responsive to whites in cities, much more so than it’s responsive to people of color, especially if we look at Black and Hispanic residents,” Schaffner said. “That’s happening even in communities where whites are a minority of the population.”
Changing that reality is hard. For one thing, cash-strapped local campaigns have to focus resources carefully, chasing people who are likely to vote, Rashed said.
“You’re not trying to reshape an electorate, you’re trying to win an electorate,” Rashed said.
And there’s little sign in those areas that an election is coming. Several people interviewed in Fairhill and Kingsessing earlier this month said they didn’t know much about the primary and were skeptical about any politician’s ability to change long-neglected neighborhoods.
Although the candidates have largely spent time campaigning where registered voters live, often removed from high crime or incarceration rates, their pitches are all about people touched by both.
Vega has campaigned in the heart of Kensington, promising frustrated residents he would increase prosecution of crimes Krasner has de-emphasized. The neighborhood is ground zero for the city’s drug trade. Krasner has held campaign events with Black men wrongfully convicted of murder. His core coalition, though, includes progressive white voters who live in neighborhoods largely unaffected by crime.
That alliance has historical precedent, said Jessica Trounstine, a political scientist at the University of California-Merced, who studies political representation in big cities.
“Lower-income people of color are able to get their best chance at representation when there’s a progressive white wing that allies with their group,” she said. “They just don’t have a lot of political power, and so their best chance is when they’re allied with some wing of white progressivism, and it’s a terrible statement about structural racism and structural inequality.”
Most of Vega’s support is likely to come from white communities in South and Northeast Philadelphia. Asteria Vives, a housing activist in Fairhill, said a challenge in her North Philadelphia neighborhood is educating people about the DA’s Office.
“How we get people engaged is by actually having some type of workshop to better understand the voting system, to better understand the responsibilities of these leaders,” she said. “Some people point the finger in one direction without understanding the responsibilities of others.”
» READ MORE: The Philadelphia district attorney’s job, explained
Trauma can’t be overlooked as a deterrent to voting, Vives said. She plans to vote for Krasner but is frustrated with city leadership and doesn’t feel as motivated as she was in 2017, when she led voter registration drives.
Gina Lopez, a pharmacy technician who lives in nearby Hunting Park, said shootings are so prevalent that she doesn’t let her kids play outside. She’s looking to move. “It’s really bad,” she said. “Everybody’s killing everybody.”
Lopez is a registered Democrat who voted in November’s presidential election but was unaware of the primary.
“I haven’t heard of it,” she said. “I did vote [last] year, but … I just feel like a lot of times, I feel like everyone fails us, for the most part.”
That kind of frustration is often described as apathy. But whether people vote isn’t a reflection of whether they care, said City Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who is backing Krasner.
“Everybody is touched by this,” she said, “whether they choose to be angry and come out or they choose to stay home.”
Millennials in Action, which works to engage young voters in marginalized communities, has been canvassing neighborhoods across Northwest Philadelphia for what typically sees even lower turnout: judicial races.
The group has knocked on more than 11,000 doors from Germantown to Olney to Strawberry Mansion. Its president, Abu Edwards, recruits young Black men, some of whom have been affected by the criminal justice system, to help.
“When you’re working three to four jobs, voting is not at the forefront,” he said, “even though it should be because you need the policies to support you.”