Fewer Philadelphians Asked for Absentee Ballots This Year Than in 2012 or 2008*

*But there's a caveat.

Donald Trump. Photo | Michael Conroy, AP. Hillary Clinton. Photo | Andrew Harnik, AP

Donald Trump. Photo | Michael Conroy, AP. Hillary Clinton. Photo | Andrew Harnik, AP

More than 18,500 voters in Philadelphia asked for absentee ballots for the 2016 presidential election.

That’s a roughly 20 percent drop from the approximately 23,200 absentee ballots that were sent out in 2008, according to Republican City Commissioner Al Schmidt’s office. It’s a slightly smaller decrease compared to 2012, when an estimated 21,400 absentee ballots were distributed.

Should Democrats should start panicking? Well, maybe. There’s a caveat to these numbers.

The figures for 2008 and 2012 are imprecise. Because of how records have been kept, if someone voted in Philly in 2008 and then moved out of the city in 2009, they would take their absentee voting history with them and not show up in the City Commissioners’ data; likewise, people bring their absentee voting history with them when they move into the city, even if they voted in Kansas or Bucks County or Mars in 2008.

The upshot: The 2008 and 2012 figures could be off by a few hundred, according to Schmidt’s office. But Deputy City Commissioner Seth Bluestein says the numbers would likely not shift more than that. In other words, it’s safe to say that significantly fewer Philadelphians requested absentee ballots this year than they did in 2008 or 2012, he says.

Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, says that’s “not good” news for Clinton. Pennsylvania is a key part of her electoral firewall against Donald Trump, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Philadelphia by seven to one.

“It either means not as many people are going away on Election Day or are ill, and so they aren’t requesting as many absentee ballots, or it shows declining interest in the election,” says Madonna. “I’m not suggesting to know which one it is, but that’s been a problem that Clinton has feared — that especially among African-Americans and millennials, the interest is not where it was four years ago.”

This isn’t the only bad news the Clinton camp got Wednesday: The New York Times reported today that “African-Americans are failing to vote at the robust levels they did four years ago in several states that could help decide the presidential election. … In North Carolina, where a federal appeals court accused Republicans of an ‘almost surgical’ assault on black turnout and Republican-run election boards curtailed early-voting sites, black turnout is down 16 percent.”

Pennsylvania does not permit early voting like Florida or North Carolina. Voters here must have an “excuse” to request an absentee ballot. (Yesterday was the deadline to apply for one, and the ballots are due back by Friday at 5 p.m.) State officials could not yet say how many voters in all of Pennsylvania asked for absentee ballots this year, explaining “it could be several days until we have the final figure.”

In at least one recent election, a drop in absentee ballots coincided with a drop in overall turnout. According to data provided by the City Commissioners Office, the number of absentee ballots distributed in Philadelphia fell by 8 percent in 2012 compared to 2008. Voter turnout in the presidential election decreased by 7.6 percent in the same period.

Still, Clinton maintains a lead over Trump in Pennsylvania. She is currently 4.9 points ahead of him in the state in a four-way race, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls.

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