When Voter Turnout in Philadelphia Really Matters

If you don't cast a ballot in local races, old Philly wins.

Polls were crowded and lines to vote were long on Election Day here in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. It is a political maxim that voters engage and turn out for presidential elections. But, in the four years between the presidential contests, Philadelphia polling places can be awfully lonely. If we are going to make Philadelphia the city we know it can be, we have to change that fact and come out to vote in local races—as they can be much more important to our day-to-day lives than national contests.

While the president sets an important direction for the nation, local leaders decide what taxes we will pay to fund the services we consume. Local decisions affect the safety of our neighborhoods, the quality of our schools, and the economic vitality of our city. Philadelphians can meet and connect with local candidates in a way that is impossible with national figures, so we can truly make informed voting decisions.

Some people talk about the emergence of a new Philadelphia. Demographic and socio-economic shifts are changing our city, but it won’t be a new Philadelphia until new Philadelphians elect new leaders. Happily, given low voter turnout for local races, this is tantalizingly possible. All it takes is voting.

Looking at Philadelphia’s track record, it is clear that voting in non-presidential election years is as rare as a Philadelphia sports-championship parade. In 2008, nearly 700,000 voters cast ballots in the Obama/McCain presidential contest. But in 2010, only 425,000 cast ballots for the gubernatorial election. In Philadelphia, where the Democratic Party dominates electoral politics, the turnout drops even further for primary elections. In the last hotly contested mayoral primary in 2007, only 291,000 Democratic voters participated in the election for mayor. That falls off even further for the “off-year” election of the district attorney and controller—only a little more than 100,000 Democratic voters bothered to cast ballots.

The forces that protect the status quo in Philadelphia—those comfortable with a city that fails to live up to its potential and misses so many opportunities to steer toward a brighter future—love low-turnout elections where independent-minded voters represent a smaller percentage of the electorate. When voters stay home, we are all collectively left to the mercies of the back-room dealers and you-scratch-my-back pols who control so much of what happens in Philadelphia. But, those pols are definitely in the minority, and they cannot control the outcome of a race when hundreds of thousands of voters go to the polls.

I plan to be a part of the 2013 election as a candidate for City Controller, and I will do all I can to reach voters across the city. But, the truth is, when I interact with Philadelphians, I will know that perhaps only one in 10 will actually come out and vote.

It’s not so easy to bring real change to a city that desperately needs it when others who want change don’t bother to vote. So remember the lines and the hoopla surrounding this election. The only way we will bring real change to Philadelphia is to channel that same engagement for local races.