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As registration deadline nears, a mad dash in Philadelphia to reach voters

Voter registration and education efforts took place in every corner of the region as the election nears.

Nicolas O'Rourke, director of organizing for Pennsylvania Working Families, encourages passersby to vote early by casting a mail-in ballot at the satellite election office in Philadelphia's City Hall earlier this month.
Nicolas O'Rourke, director of organizing for Pennsylvania Working Families, encourages passersby to vote early by casting a mail-in ballot at the satellite election office in Philadelphia's City Hall earlier this month.Read more / File Photograph

The reminders are hard to miss. Light poles across Philadelphia are decorated with signs imploring residents to vote. Cell phones are vibrating with texts from this organization or that one, and it’s a challenge to walk to the store without being asked by a volunteer: “Have you voted yet?”

In West Philadelphia on Saturday morning, the reminders came in the form of a parade of more than a dozen beeping cars decorated in signs that read “Real Black Men Vote.” A woman wore a crown with a face shield. A veteran yelled into a microphone: “Are you ready to vote?” and the caravan snaked through the neighborhood.

The voter mobilization effort was a made-for-the-pandemic version of what’s happening throughout Pennsylvania this weekend, as the final two-week stretch of the presidential election draws near and the deadline to register to vote is Monday. The commonwealth has become a focal point for these efforts as polls show Pennsylvania is among the most crucial of swing states.

“This weekend is very critical,” said Andrea Custis, president and CEO of the Urban League of Philadelphia, which organized the caravan in part “to dispel the myth that Black men don’t vote” in conjunction with State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., West Philadelphia). “We’re going to be out there registering through Monday until the very last moment. We’re not going to waste one minute.”

“People died for us to have this right,” she said, invoking Octavius V. Catto, a civil rights activist who fought for voting rights for Black Americans and was murdered in Philadelphia in 1871. “That’s serious to me.”

The car caravan took place after a rally at a newly opened satellite election office at Alain Locke Elementary School, where voters can register, request a mail ballot, and return one directly to city election workers. Among the voters Saturday was 76ers rookie Matisse Thybulle, who filled out his ballot inside, while organizations — including the Biden campaign — were posted outside at tables giving away coffee and literature.

Grace Wetzel, a 19-year-old college student from East Falls, said that while she envisioned pushing “the big green button” in her first presidential election, dropping her mail ballot into a teal bag two weeks before Election Day was close enough.

“I wanted to do my part here,” said Wetzel, who attends school out of state but came home to Philadelphia this weekend. “I wanted to make a difference.”

The drive was one of a handful across the region making a last-ditch effort to register as many people as possible, then convert them into voters by helping them obtain a mail ballot, directing them to a satellite office, or assisting them with plans to vote in-person on Nov. 3.

On Saturday in West Philadelphia’s Parkside section, the nonpartisan group Be Woke.Vote hosted a drive-thru voter registration event as part of its “Rep Your City Tour” aimed at engaging young voters. Philadelphia City Commissioner Omar Sabir and the African American Charter School Coalition hosted registration drives outside nine Philly schools.

And in Chester, Delaware County officials teamed up with the Philadelphia Union this weekend to host a three-day “pop-up voter service center” at Subaru Park.

County spokesperson Ryan Herlinger said officials on Saturday processed “a fairly significant number of people," saying, “We don’t have crowds, but we had a constant stream of voters.”

» READ MORE: A pop-up voter services center can open in Chester this weekend as Delco judge throws out legal challenge

Voter registration across Pennsylvania is nearing a record high, state officials say, and more than two million people are expected to cast a ballot by mail. Sabir said more than 75,000 Philadelphians have already returned mail ballots.

The variety of ways to vote and the various rules associated with each method have left some voters fearing their ballot won’t be counted if they make an error. So organizations, politicians, and others are filling in the blanks. Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who was at the rally in West Philadelphia on Saturday morning, said she’s “demystifying” the process for constituents and senses a new level of energy she didn’t see in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

“People understand where we are,” she said. “Voting has never been more critical. We are literally fighting for our survival.”

» READ MORE: How to vote in 2020: Everything you need to know about voting by mail, or in person, in Pennsylvania

Gauthier on Saturday was standing alongside a who’s who of Philadelphia politicians all pushing voting, including Hughes, Congressman Dwight Evans, and several state representatives and senators.

There was also Marshall Houston, a Black veteran who lives in East Oak Lane and served in the Marine Corps from 1962 to 1968. He volunteers with the Penndelphia Detachment of the Marine Corps League and tells young people: “We fought for your right to vote.”

“Some people today figure ‘my vote doesn’t count,'” he said. “If you don’t vote, the politicians will say ‘we can ignore these people.’ Don’t let them."