Kenney Says Philly Turnout Was High Tuesday. That’s Completely Untrue.

It was abysmally low. We must figure out why, and fix it.

Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney released a statement yesterday in the wake of the election of Republican Donald Trump. Along with encouraging residents not to “simply give up,” he said, “I am exceedingly proud of Philadelphia. Yesterday, we turned out at the polls more so than any time in recent history.”

That is a pants-on-fire lie.

Sixty-four percent of registered voters came to the polls. That’s actually four points lower than the 68 percent who showed up in 2008, and two points lower than the 66 percent who came out in 2012. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that those two presidential elections had good turnout: One-third of registered voters in the fifth-biggest city in the nation failing to participate in the election of the American president is a small “d”-democratic failure. To make matters worse, about 346,000 of the city’s 1.2 million residents of voting age are currently not registered to vote.

I don’t want to make too much of a statement issued less than 24 hours after a shocking election. But Kenney’s being “proud” of this is unacceptable, and it reflects a complacency in local politics about voter participation that took hold years ago. In the ’60s, voter turnout in the city peaked at 90 percent. In the ’70s, it held at 75 percent and 77 percent. By the ’80s, its nadir was 67 percent. In the 2000s, it sank as low as 55 percent. Local elections are even worse: When Kenney won the mayoral primary last year — in this Democrat-controlled city, primaries are the only competitive mayoral races we have — turnout was just 27 percent. (Sourcing here.)

Some of these numbers are related to improvements made in registering voters. In 1960, 46 percent of the total population of the city actually voted. (This population count includes under-18 residents.) In 2016, the figure is 45 percent. Have we made gains in registering voters, but not moved the needle whatsoever on participation at the polls? Either way, it’s bad.

Residents should not be shamed for this. Rather, institutions should be held accountable. In a city in which registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-to-1, the onus of turning out the vote falls largely on the Democratic Party. Clearly, Hillary Clinton had major flaws as a candidate, and the national party must now look inward and figure out how to vastly improve, if not completely transform. But the fact is that hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians were not motivated to vote in the Bush-Gore, Bush-Kerry, Obama-McCain and Obama-Romney elections, either. In a swing state, this (clearly) has national effects.

Our journalistic, academic and religious institutions also play vital roles in conveying the importance of elections, and must look inward as well. Pennsylvania has no voter ID law (Republican state lawmakers passed one in 2012, but it was struck down in court), so that is not a factor here. The state does not, however, permit early voting or no-excuse absentee voting, so that could be.

What is driving this terrible turnout, and how can it be fixed? Serious effort must be put into figuring out the answer to these questions.

This post has been updated to include more information on population-to-voter participation rates.

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