‘This really is the defining election of my life’: 2020 Black voter turnout in Philly buoyed by hope for the future

Written by on November 4, 2020

By Sojourner Ahebee | Votebeat

Ilya Knidhnik, 38, has volunteered as a poll worker for almost two decades.

“People use this expression ‘this is the most important election’ a little too much but this really is the defining election of my life,” said the West Philadelphia resident.

 

Knidhnik worked the polls all day Tuesday in the Belmont neighborhood at Alain Locke Elementary school. He was volunteering with the community initiative West and Southwest Votes, which is a collaboration between Councilmember Jamie Gauthier of Philadelphia’s 3rd District and the soon-to-be elected State Representative, Rick Krajewski. 

Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier visits Mount Olivet Village voting poll location in West Philadelphia on Election Day 2020. Photography by Sojourner Ahebee.

Knidhnik says running an election during a pandemic has had a huge impact on how voters navigated casting their ballots on the big day. Despite that, he believes voter turnout across the city and the nation could reach historic levels.

According to data from the U.S. Elections Project, at least 101.2 million people voted early in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. Many Americans chose to vote in person on Tuesday. If turnout crosses the 150 million mark, 2020 would be considered “the highest turnout of eligible voters by percentage in a presidential election since 1908,” according to an analysis by USA Today.

And the Black voter turnout in particular could be a defining factor of the election, as Black Americans were disproportionately impacted by pandemic-related losses like work and health care, which many predicted would incentivize voting. 

But as of Wednesday at 3 PM, The Philadelphia City Commissioners Office, which oversees elections, reported on their website that Philadelphia voter turnout is currently at 51.4%, which lags behind the city’s turnout (64%) in the 2016 election. 

Across the city, lines peaked in the early morning hours on Election Day and towards the end of the day. Many voters reported having to take off work to come and vote, coinciding with the time of day WURD observed surges in voting at polling sites in the city. But lines continued to move quickly and efficiently, with poll workers giving clear directions and encouraging voters to socially distance. 

Marcus Brown, 20, of West Powelton, said getting to the polls was easy.

“I actually just looked up [my polling location] like 5 minutes just before I got here,” he said as he waited in line. “It was a clear process to get in line and nobody really held me up.”

For others though, it wasn’t so clear. Knidhnik noted that early voting sites were a big source of confusion for voters wanting to cast their ballot by mail.

“They’re often sent to the wrong place and told conflicting information,” said Knidhnik. “The Commissioners have not done a great job in informing everybody where to go or how things work.”

The Alain Locke School, located at 45th and Haverford Avenue, is both a polling location for in-person voting and a satellite site where voters can drop off mail-in ballots during Election Day. 

According to Knidhnik,there wasn’t a lot of clarity about how voters could use them for the two different forms of voting. At the satellite offices, individuals could request a replacement for a mail-in ballot if they didn’t receive theirs, complete their ballot, and return it, all in one visit on Election Day.

“Like these satellite offices opened at 11:30 [AM],” said Knidhnik. “The voting sites opened at 8 AM, but they told people if you requested a mail-in ballot then go to a satellite office, which was closed.”

Many voters trying to request and cast mail-in ballots through the satellite office thought they could arrive at 8 AM like voters who opted to use traditional machines on Election Day, but were denied access. And for some it would have been an inconvenience to return more than three hours later to go through the process.

For many, satellite offices provided a safe way to vote without exposing oneself to the virus. Knidhnik says he fears that those who arrived too early and left “might not vote.”

Why voters chose to opt into in-person voting

Thomas Friend, 29, of Cobbs Creek is from the same neighborhood Walter Wallace Jr. was fatally shot by Philadelphia Police Officers on October 26, just days before the presidential election. Friend says Wallace’s death struck a chord and motivated him to vote in-person, because he felt it would have more of an immediate impact on Election Day.

“My vote is important and it [could] change a lot of things like police brutality and a lot of racial things that’s taking place,” Friend, who is only two years older than Wallace, said. “Growing up in this community, [Wallace’s death] kinda hit home really close. Usually you see it on the news and around the nation, [but this is] kinda personal, you know?”

Donald Long, 71, says he didn’t have much of a choice. He’s a senior in the Cobbs Creek community, and says he tried to vote by mail but he never got confirmation that his ballot was received. 

“I don’t know if it went through or not the way the mail [was] acting, so I thought maybe I’d come in-person, and do it the old fashioned way,” he said.

Long is one of the many seniors who made it to the polls on Tuesdays, with the threat of the pandemic and the potential to be exposed to the virus looming large. 

Daion Fields, 26, says she just had more faith in the voting machines than the mail-in system.

“I voted in person because I felt more comfortable with that option despite Covid and everything,” said Fields.

Poll Workers: The Backbone of Election Day

At the Overbrook High School polling location in West Philadelphia, poll workers said that tensions ran high when one of their voting machines stopped working during the early morning hours and voters were forced to contend with long lines that didn’t appear to move.

Overbrook resident Brenda Taylor has worked the polls for seven years and says her staff called the City Commissioners Office to service the machine.

“It took too long and then the voters started getting aggravated,” said Taylor.

Criss, one of the machine inspectors at the Overbrook location, said despite high tensions, her  job was to quell the crowd and that’s just what she did. She’s lived in Overbrook for over 17 years and knew many of the people coming in to vote on Tuesday.

West Philadelphia resident, Criss, served as a machine inspector at the Overbrook High School polling location on Election day. Photography by Sojourner Ahebee.

“We just kept it moving until someone came in to correct [the machine],” said Criss. “I was just communicating with [voters], trying to keep the spirit light so it was easy not to get caught up in the ‘ra ra’ ‘cause some people’s tensions were high but through teamwork we got it calm and we saw the flow [return].”

It was Criss’s second time as a poll worker. She says her first was during the Obama campaign in 2008. This year she returned because she wanted to protect the seniors in her community.

“There weren’t many people at this location who had signed up to work the polls,” Criss said.“ Our seniors were fearful because of the pandemic so I wanted to ensure that people could come into the polls.”

Some seniors showed up to volunteer anyway. Andre Black is 70-years-old and he’s been a  resident of West Philadelphia’s Black Bottom neighborhood since the 1960s, now referred to as University City in an era of university expansion and gentrification. Black served as a machine inspector at the Mount Olivet Village location at North 41st street on Election Day.

Andre Black, 70, worked as a machine inspector at the Mount Olivet Village polling location in West Philadelphia. Photography by Sojourner Ahebee.

“I’m glad to see more young people coming out and voting,” Black exclaimed. “I’m 70 so my  thing is I’m going to go about doing the right thing because I believe in these people,” he said, as he pointed to his t-shirt, which was plastered with images of African-America abolitionists and civil rights activists like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Dounglass, and Fannie Lou Hamer. 

He’s an energetic and charismatic character, who moved about the space attending to every voter’s needs.

“I let them know that I’m here to help you help yourself,” he said with a laugh as he pointed out a machine that was not functioning. Black said the voting machine was never working to begin with when they opened the polls at 7AM on Tuesday.

“We made a call but nobody showed up yet,” said Black. It was 9 am at the time. 

Despite this hiccup, that had little impact on lines at Mount Olivet in the morning hours.Two other voting machines that were functioning were used by the morning crowd. 

Ultimately poll workers like Black were the backbone of Election Day logistics. It was common for them to have deep roots in the community they were serving, and like, Black, they carried a real sense of compassion and patience for those who came to vote in-person on Tuesday.

Voters waiting in line at the Mount Olivet Village polling location in West Philadelphia. Photography by Sojourner Ahebee.

‘Voting should be easy but  it’s not’

For Knidhnik, this election has a lot at stake, “from our institutions of democracy to just basic decency,” he said. “There is no humanity in this White House, there is no art in this White House. This is the only White House without a White  House pet. There is nothing in this White House that unites the nation, that brings people together.”

Despite the many hoops voters had to jump through just to exercise their right to vote, Knidhnik still has hope.

“Voting should be easy and it’s not in our society,”  he said. “This year we have this extra level of difficulty. And I think the unprecedented situation that we’re in really gets more people out and energized and willing to brave all the difficulties and come out.”

 


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.


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