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The warning sign hidden in Pa. Democrats’ big wins this year: Philly turnout plummeted

An Inquirer analysis of the almost-final 2022 results and those from past elections raises questions about the city’s future role in statewide races.

A sign urging people to vote in front of Philadelphia City Hall
A sign urging people to vote in front of Philadelphia City HallRead moreDavid Maialetti / Staff Photographer

The midterm elections clean sweep by Pennsylvania Democrats obscured a big warning sign for the party: Philadelphia keeps falling behind.

Turnout in midterm elections always drops from presidential races. But Philly’s overall turnout dropped the most of any county in the state. It’s the third consecutive election in which Philly’s share of the state’s vote declined.

An Inquirer analysis of the almost-final 2022 results and those from past elections raises questions about the city’s future role in statewide races and both parties’ ability to connect with Black and Latino neighborhoods, where a lot of voters stayed home:

  1. Philly’s vote count dropped 33% from 2020, more than any other county and the statewide average of 22%.

  2. It’s not just a 2020 comparison: This year saw a stark divergence between Philly turnout and the rest of the state compared to every federal election since at least 2000.

  3. Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, has about 133,000 fewer voters than Philly — but cast about 67,000 more ballots this election.

  4. Philadelphia’s share of the state’s total Democratic vote has dropped from 20% in 2016 to 15% this year.

  5. Overall turnout dropped most sharply in Latino parts of the city and, to a lesser extent, in Black neighborhoods.

The falloff in Latino and Black neighborhoods reflects a statewide trend, with depressed turnout in communities of color across a number of urban areas. But because of Philadelphia’s sheer size — and how overwhelmingly Democratic it is — even small dips can mean thousands or tens of thousands of lost votes. If Philadelphia’s turnout drop had matched the state’s, about 84,000 more voters would have cast ballots.

That could be foreboding for Pennsylvania Democrats, who celebrated victories up and down the ballot in spite of it. John Fetterman outperformed Joe Biden in most parts of the state, including in Philadelphia, where he essentially got a bigger piece of a much smaller pie. But if that pie keeps shrinking, it’s bad news for Democrats, said J.J. Balaban, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist who has helped run statewide campaigns.

“Any drop in the number of Philadelphians who vote is terrible for Democratic chances of winning statewide,” he said, given that about 80% of Philadelphians vote Democratic.

“Over the long run, having Philadelphia vote at a disproportionately low level will make it harder for Democrats to win elections,” Balaban said. “It won’t make it impossible … but it just makes it harder. So it is a real problem.”

‘Communities at the margins’

Precinct-level results show Philly’s turnout decline is sharp in Black neighborhoods and sharpest in Latino ones.

And that’s not just a Philadelphia phenomenon. Across Pennsylvania cities, there’s a moderate correlation between race and turnout drop: Generally, the whiter the city, the shallower the decline. Turnout in Pittsburgh declined slightly more than the rest of the state, but it was particularly low in majority-Black wards. Cities in North Carolina and Ohio with high populations of Black voters also had lower turnout.

In Pennsylvania, the steepest dives were in heavily Latino cities such as Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton, Reading, and Allentown, which all saw turnout drop even more than Philadelphia. (Philadelphia is the only city in the state that’s also a county.) Some community leaders said the turnout in Latino communities shows a failure of candidates and both parties to connect with long neglected voters.

“There’s lots of things to say about how ignored Latinos feel by the electoral system,” said Erika Almirón, a senior organizer with Mijente, a national Latino social justice group that works in Philadelphia. “And it manifests by not wanting to participate, and so if we want those numbers to improve, candidates have to knock on doors, we need resources.”

Philadelphia’s heavily Latino neighborhoods have long been the hardest to turn out, and they had by far the biggest vote declines this year.

Almirón helped lead a bilingual canvassing push the week before the election in the city’s 42nd Ward, near Hunting Park in North Philadelphia. The goal was to draw out people who show up for presidential elections but not midterms. Still, most of the ward’s 2020 voters sat this one out.

Almirón said her group wasn’t able to secure funding to start sooner.

“Our community is very rarely prioritized,” she said. “No one’s talking to them or the funding doesn’t come down until late — or the canvassers are not our people or they’re not bilingual.”

Will Gonzalez, head of the local Latino community coalition Ceiba, said he’s worried about growing disengagement. The Latino population continues to grow, and he’s trying to get people to see the power of their vote. But there are also structural barriers, Gonzalez said, pointing to Philadelphia’s deep poverty and economic struggles. The lowest turnout, and the biggest drops, came in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods that are also poor and low-income.

“You’re dealing with communities at the margins,” Gonzalez said.

Almirón said politicians and parties have been slow to do anything differently.

“Sometimes there’s a priority on shifting certain populations rather than engaging the population no one’s talking to,” she said. “So all this effort talking to suburban white women, rather than investing and talking to a community you’re not talking to, who you probably have a better chance of just moving to the polls.”

About 12% of Philadelphia’s eligible voters are Hispanic or Latino, according to Census Bureau estimates, and the state has about 600,000 voting-age Latino citizens.

“If Latinos are engaged by the Democratic Party,” Almirón said, “we would no longer have a swing state in Pennsylvania.”

Several majority-Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia saw less-steep but still marked turnout declines.

Malcolm Kenyatta, a state representative in North Philly, said having no hometown candidates on the ballot might have hurt. But he thinks politicians need to talk to voters more to fully understand what’s happening.

“This is more significant than politics,” Kenyatta said. “There are a lot of people who are giving up on government, who are giving up on the idea that government can work.”

Kenyatta said the toll that a pandemic, deep poverty, and gun violence has taken on many Black voters can’t be underemphasized.

Eroding clout in Harrisburg?

What the shifting turnout patterns mean for Philadelphia’s political clout — and for power within the city — remains to be seen.

Democrats won a lot of independent voters and voters in rural areas where the party hasn’t traditionally performed well. Some may have been particularly motivated to vote against Trump-aligned candidates.

Fetterman campaign manager Brendan McPhillips noted that by increasing the Democratic vote share in those areas, Philly’s would naturally dip. Still, elections often come down to the strengths of individual candidates, which changes year to year.

“We won’t always have the luxury of running against Doug Mastriano,” Balaban said, referring to the GOP gubernatorial nominee.

If the city’s voting power declines, that could erode some of its influence in Harrisburg, said State Rep. Danilo Burgos, a Democrat who represents parts of North Philly.

“It can potentially mean a decline in resources to help the community,” he said.

Still, Philadelphia continues to be the foundation of the Democratic Party in the state. Joanna McClinton, who represents parts of Southwest Philadelphia, is poised to be the next speaker of the state House, and Jordan Harris, who represents parts of Grays Ferry and Point Breeze, is the Democratic whip.

And the city’s influence extends into the growing suburbs surrounding it, which have shifted left as they’ve grown, becoming a greater and greater source of Democratic votes. More Democratic voters still live in the Philadelphia region than anywhere else in the state.

There’s also opportunity in the drop-off, Burgos said: Voters who showed up before but didn’t this time might still engage in the future. Burgos called that constituency a potentially powerful “sleeping giant.”

And elections happen every six months, Burgos and others noted — starting with next year’s critical and wide open race for Philadelphia mayor.

“The ground is fertile, and Philadelphia has proven, with the right candidates, that people come out to vote,” Burgos said. “It’s going to take a lot of people working together to engage that voting bloc so we can once again have numbers that are indicative of the population.”