By Sojourner Ahebee | Votebeat
More than 10,000 voters cast their ballots in Philadelphia’s 9th Ward, marking the city’s highest registered-voter turnout, at 80%, during the 2020 general election. By comparison, citywide turnout was 66% and statewide turnout a little over 70%.
Karen Bojar has lived in the 9th Ward for 40 years and was a Democratic ward committee person there for 36 of those years until retiring in 2018. She says the 9th Ward has historically toppled the city turnout average and there are a few reasons why.
“The 9th ward has a lot of factors going for it,” said Bojar. “The educational level of the voters, the long history of an open ward, and particularly engaged committee people [are all] major drivers of turnout.”
With 17 voting divisions in total, the ward encompasses Chestnut Hill and a section of Mount Airy, where residents tend to be older, relatively wealthy, and well-educated.
The average household income on the western side of the ward is about $139,000 a year, almost three times the city’s average, according to data from the 2018 American Community Survey, and less than 6% of the population lives below the poverty line.
About 70 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and the median home value there is a little over half a million dollars.
In open wards like the 9th, which are rare in Philadelphia, committee people have the power to vote on endorsements of political candidates and policies that govern ward operations, and can make endorsements that are at odds with ward-wide endorsements.
Bojar says there’s a real correlation between high turnout and open wards because committee people have input and can sway constituents in a real way.
Nina Ahmad, who ran unsuccessfully for state auditor general this year, has lived in the 9th ward since 1996 and served as a committee person there for close to six years before she was appointed deputy mayor of public engagement for the city of Philadelphia. She says when you look at how 9th Ward residents vote in any given election, their ballots often correlate with their committee person’s recommendation, because voter outreach on the committee level is strong there.
“When I was a committee person, my corresponding committee person and I actually knocked on 600 plus doors,” recalled Ahmad.
She’d talk to voters and distribute a handwritten letter to each constituent outlining her endorsements as well as general information about how and when to vote.
But Shoshana Bricklin says there’s nothing exceptional about the 2020 turnout in the 9th. She is a committee person in the 6th division and says the voter engagement in her ward this year is the residual effect of years and years of committee people collaborating with ward leaders to get the vote out.
“I don’t think that we did a great job,” said Bricklin. “I think that a lot of this was leftover. People who voted disproportionately by mail were older people who were already super voters.”
Ahmad agrees with some of Bricklin’s sentiment, noting that residents in the 9th are informed voters who come out and do their civic duty because they have the time and resources to be civically involved.
“If you look at the places with low turnout, we have high poverty there,” said Ahmad. “We have people who are losing their jobs. Why are they going to vote [when] no one is speaking to them?”
But while some low-turnout wards across the city received almost exclusively virtual outreach through emails and social media amid the pandemic, Bojar says strong in-person engagement from committee people remained in the 9th Ward.
“They were out there visiting elderly voters, [making] personal calls in many cases,” recalled Bojar. “They were doing everything possible to ensure that their constituents had the information they needed to cast an informed ballot.”
But Bojar, who is the author of Green Shoots of Democracy, a book about grassroots electoral politics in Philadelphia’s Democratic Party, says her research on a 2015 Philadelphia municipal election revealed some interesting findings on the power that elected officials have to drive turnout.
“You’re much more likely to see the impact of committee people in low turnout wards because they are fighting against the tide and they are really reaching out to voters that have been often ignored by ward leaders and politicians,” said Bojar. “So committee people can make a difference particularly in low turnout wards.”
Ultimately, affluent wards with a history of high turnout are going to come out and vote regardless of voter engagement strategies. Without strong engagement on the ward level throughout the city, Bojar believes Philadelphia will not have a fully engaged electorate.
“What is important is to elect committee people who can do the work and then those committee people [can] then elect a ward leader who will create an environment in which committee people can help their neighborhood flourish.”
Sojourner Ahebee is WURD Radio’s Votebeat reporter. This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.