As Philadelphia prepares for the June 2 primary amid the coronavirus pandemic, neighborhoods with low-income residents and communities of color are requesting absentee ballots at rates that far lag other parts of the city.
That means the coronavirus could disproportionately depress voting in disadvantaged communities that also have relatively high rates of infection. As a result, people in those neighborhoods are more likely to have to weigh a health risk against heading to the polls — just as there will be significantly fewer voting sites than normal.
“I’m very concerned. Our democracy depends on people’s ability to vote, and people shouldn’t have their health put at risk,” City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier said. “It’s great that we have made the changes to allow everyone to vote by mail, but the word is not getting out to everyone."
The 13 zip codes that account for half of the city’s 15,624 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the last four weeks also contain 40% of its registered voters — but only 27% of absentee ballot requests.
More affluent neighborhoods — primarily in Center City, South Philadelphia, and Northwest Philadelphia — have requested half of the city’s absentee ballots. Together, these 11 ZIP codes have 31% of the city’s registered voters and less than one-quarter of the confirmed COVID-19 cases in the last four weeks.
With fewer than three weeks until the primary election — and less than two weeks until the May 26 deadline for requesting absentee ballots — experts and advocates said the kind of massive voter education needed to fix the problem may be impossible. But they hope that more can be done before November.
For the first time this year, anyone in Pennsylvania can vote by mail. That’s a dramatic shift from past elections, when absentee ballots were so restricted that only about 5% of votes were cast that way. And it’s the safest option, given there’s no interaction with poll workers or other voters.
But a Brennan Center for Justice analysis found white voters in several battleground states were more likely to vote by mail than racial and ethnic minorities in 2016. Only about 5% of statewide absentee requests this year have come from people of color, according to estimates from America Votes, a progressive group.
Applying online is straightforward, but requires internet access and a state ID or driver’s license. Without them, the process gets more complicated.
Part of the difficulty is letting people know about the new rules.
“It is important to have no-excuse vote by mail, but in the best of circumstances it would be coupled with a public education campaign that would particularly target communities that have historically not had significant experience with vote-by-mail,” said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Members of City Council have been recording public service announcements for radio. Constituent service work in many offices has become primarily about how to get people ballots. Meanwhile, activist groups are trying to fill in the gaps via targeted digital advertising. Residents in districts with contested primary races also hear from campaigns encouraging voting by mail.
For Our Future, a progressive political action committee, created digital ads targeting communities of color in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania director Ashley McBride said it’s hard for thousands of text messages to undo skepticism informed by years of disenfranchisement.
“Our country has a long history of not doing right by communities of color, particularly when we’re talking about voting rights and expansion,” she said.
Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University who studies African American politics and participation, said voting is not always as easy as it seems in poorer or working class areas. For example, she said, shift workers might have to sacrifice an hour or two of wages to vote.
“What we’re being reminded of here is that voting has costs,” Gillespie said. “And these costs have been amplified in the wake of COVID-19.”
The news cycle that normally would be dominated by an election is now focused on the coronavirus. A voter’s public transit commute can take much longer, making voting before or after work tougher.
“If you are out of work right now, that bus fare is more precious to you than it was,” Gillespie said.
Neighborhoods that have requested few absentee ballots this election also tend to have lower turnout historically, but the absentee ballot request rate is low for those areas even compared with 2016 voter turnout.
In deciding where to put 190 polling places — down from 831 last election — the city commissioners said they prioritized areas with low absentee request numbers, in anticipation of more in-person demand there.
They’re also advertising vote-by-mail in food boxes distributed to low-income residents, talking with black clergy, and distributing absentee ballot applications to churches.
“We can’t do the sorts of things we typically would do, like go to community meetings and church functions and town halls and community days," said City Commissioner Lisa Deeley. "So we’re competing for people’s attention.”
But the lessons from this election, they said, need to be applied to the next one, when the city will see much higher turnout.
“There is not that kind of wiggle room in November," said Hannah Fried, national campaign director for All Voting Is Local.