By Sojourner Ahebee | Votebeat
Even as voters in Philadelphia turned out in record numbers this election, two wards with the lowest turnout in the city show why some were still left behind in this democratic exercise. One of these is the 27th Ward in west and southwest Philadelphia, which includes University City with all its colleges and students. Registered-voter turnout in this ward was less than 40 percent, significantly below the city-wide 66 percent turnout.
But the numbers don’t tell the full story.
The low turnout is partly because of the pandemic — many students left the city and on-campus housing, which means they weren’t there to vote in November, even as their names remained on the registration rolls. But it’s also because some registered student voters left years ago. It’s typical for college students to remain on the voter rolls for years, even after graduating and relocating out of the city or the neighborhood, according to Carol Jenkins, who has been the ward leader in the 27th for over 17 years. And since voter turnout is often calculated using the number of registered voters, reported turnout is always distorted in the ward.
“Even in a normal presidential election, with high turnout throughout, and especially among the student population, these high turnout numbers are never accurately reflected because of the inflated registration rolls,” said Jenkins.
Pennsylvania is one of the many states where the onus to update voter registrations files largely falls on the voter themselves. Executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania Khalif Ali says county election officials have no way of knowing where you are living or whether you have moved unless you tell them.
“Because we’re a state that pushes voters to update their own information, we have people who are on the voter rolls for many many years and no changes are made because people have to be conscientious and say, Hey, I’m moving or I’m a student and I won’t be returning,” said Ali.
About one-third of the 27th Ward consists of University City in West Philadelphia, Jenkins said, which is home to colleges like Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania, and where the many college students who attend these institutions typically reside during a normal school year.
And because the universities pivoted to virtual instruction during the pandemic, the approximately 5,500 students who lived on-campus prior to the pandemic were told not to return for the fall semester. Many of these students were active voters who were not in the city to come to the polls on Election Day. And new students also did not vote in the 27th Ward, which didn’t worsen turnout, but didn’t improve it either.
“For this election, no admitted freshman students moved to the city and were registered as new voters, so we lost this group totally,” said Jenkins.
‘It was harder to get students to register during a pandemic’
Michael Nevett, 20, is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania and was the political director of the Penn Democrats, a student-run political organization on campus, during the 2020 election cycle. When he was a freshman, he remembers the get-out-the-vote volunteers passing through campus and encouraging him and other students to fill out voter registration forms. This year, that in-person voter outreach just wasn’t possible.
In the fall, in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, UPenn cancelled the vast majority of on-campus housing, forcing most students to find housing in the surrounding area or go home. Nevett and the Penn Democrats knew this could have a significant impact on student turnout in the election. In Pennsylvania, if you don’t have a Pa. driver’s license, you need to fill out a paper form to register to vote.
“That makes things much harder for students, many of which are not from Pennsylvania,” said Nevett. “And [freshmen] were coming to campus and they needed to register and it was somewhat harder to get them to register during a pandemic.”
Under Nevett’s leadership, the Penn Democrats got to work. In mid-September, they identified neighborhoods where students were likely to be living and left 2,000 absentee and voter registration forms on porches and doorsteps in University City. Nevett noted that with campus shut down, students lacked access to library printers, and getting a hold of basic mailing supplies like stamps created an impediment to requesting and returning their ballots.
“One of my top priorities was making sure people had the materials that they needed,” said Nevett. “So we organized 20 students or so to go to different residences and drop off stamps, addressed envelopes, and instructions with our contact info.”
‘There were a lot of students who had to make adjustments’
The students who moved out of the city during widespread campus closures were still able to vote by absentee ballot in Pennsylvania. But Nevett says the uptick in students requesting ballots by mail from their new places of residence caused some confusion and led to delays in delivery of those ballots.
“The city of Philadelphia ended up mailing about 200 ballots to on-campus residences when presumably almost all of them requested them to be sent to wherever they’re living,” said Nevett.
Fortunately, the University learned of the mistake and was able to forward the ballots to the students’ current addresses.
“But there were a lot of people who had to make adjustments because of that, a lot of people who had to get replacement ballots,” said Nevett.
Some students who were staying in other states had to rush and return their ballots via priority mail. And Nevett says he spoke to a few students who actually drove from other states to drop off their ballots in-person. And some just voted in their home states this year.
“There were [students] who were not registered in the first place in Pennsylvania and at that point they just had to vote at home,” said Nevett.
‘It was a grassroots program designed to turnout the vote’
While student departures from University City impacted the overall turnout number for the 27th Ward, Jenkins says there’s more to the story. Another third of her catchment area is composed of a part of West Philadelphia that borders University City. There, gentrification has been underway for years, and according to Jenkins, the average voter there is highly educated, upper-middle class, and they tend to be high frequency voters.
“And then when we go further west to 52nd street, that area is Southwest Philly,” said Jenkins. “And it is mostly a working class, African-American community, stable, and they are also super-voters.”
Jenkins says turnout in those parts of the ward were actually higher or on par with turnout in the 2016 presidential election. In 2016, voters in Jenkins’ Southwest Philadelphia divisions cast a total of 1,590 votes according to a data analysis by Jonathan Tannen at Sixty-Six Wards, a blog for Philadelphia elections. In the 2020 general election, Southwest voters cast 1,657 votes. Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, whose district includes the 27th, says that’s in large part due to the sustained voter outreach she and State Representative-elect Rick Krajewski did during the election cycle. Together, beginning in August 2020, they implemented their own program called West/Southwest Votes and brought on organizers and volunteers to execute the outreach.
“We did phone banks, text banks [every] week, personal letter-writing to voters, and we drove them to the early voting sites and the polls on Election Day,” said Gauthier. “And so it was a very personal, grassroots program designed to turn out the vote and we saw results.”
According to voter turnout data provided by Councilwoman Gauthier’s office, the 27th Ward was down by about 1,500 votes partly due to student departure from the city, but there was a net increase in turnout in the Third District overall.
“There are eight wards in total in the Third District and five of them saw increases in the voter turnout for Biden versus 2016,” said Gauthier. “And the other two had slight decreases in the turnout for Biden but those decreases were less substantial than in similar Black and brown neighborhoods across the city where turnout for Biden was somewhat lower than it was Clinton.”
Gauthier and Jenkins say the enthusiasm around voting amongst their constituents was unlike any election cycle they have ever seen, and rivaled the excitement they saw during the Obama elections. Gauthier spent time in-person on Election Day in the Third District and was struck by the sense of purpose Black voters in particular expressed about casting their ballot on Nov. 3.
“It was this joyous atmosphere and I had a sense that people were waiting for four years to cast their vote for a president who truly could lead the entire country and who truly could care for a city like Philadelphia and the Black and brown people who live here,” said Gauthier.
“There was just this sense of enthusiasm but also this seriousness with which people were going about this [because] they realized that they were voting for the viability of our city.”
‘There were a lot of missed opportunities’
The low turnout in a second ward in Philadelphia tells a different story.
North Philadelphia’s 7th Ward also saw low voter engagement, with turnout reported at a little over 46 percent. Councilmember Maria Quinones Sánchez , whose office oversees this section of the city, says the Democratic Party and the Biden campaign just have not made her majority-Latino and African-American district a priority. And when the pandemic struck, voter outreach from the campaign was almost exclusively virtual, which she says really limited the way the historically marginalized community could be reached.
“It was clear with my conversations with other statewide Latino leaders that the virtual situation in the campaigns was not working,” said Sánchez. “And it wasn’t until 30 days or so before the election that Biden folks decided [they] would do some limited door-to-door outreach.”
Early in the election cycle, Councilwoman Sánchez worked closely with City Commissioner Lisa Deeley and strategically placed early voting sites throughout the 7th District (of which the 7th Ward is a part) to mobilize constituents and create energy around voting. Sánchez also did in-person tabling on weekends to answer questions and provide support for those who needed it. In collaboration with the 43rd Ward, she set up a ‘Latinos for Biden’ office.
“One of the things that I [would] continuously try to tell folks is that Biden and Harris put together this very comprehensive Puerto Rico agenda but nobody knew about it because it wasn’t mailed out [to them],” said Sánchez.
“So there were a lot of missed opportunities and a lot of people used Covid as an excuse but this is how the [Democratic] Party has dealt with this community consistently.”
‘If they really want to validate Latino votes, then they have to show us’
The lack of engagement from the state and national parties coupled with language and literacy barriers as well as the threat of a global health crisis created obstacles to voting for many in this North Philadelphia community. In the beginning, Sánchez says there was a lot of excitement among community members about mail-in voting, but Trump’s rhetoric about the supposed fraudulent-ness of voting by mail began to trickle down to the 7th Ward.
“I believe we had a fallback of folks who filed for an application and then made a decision they wanted to go vote on Election day,” said Sánchez. “We had a little bit of that confusion about folks not understanding if they got a mail-in ballot, unless they brought it with them, they were not going to vote on the machine.”
Ultimately, Sánchez and other Latino leaders in the area say prioritizing voter education would have made a huge difference in the number of people who cast their vote this year. But they also say that Pennsylvania, historically, has not made voting particularly accessible. Following the 2000 Bush v. Gore election dispute, the Help America Vote Act was established, which required states to upgrade their election procedures, including voting machines and overall administration.
“But Pennsylvania went backwards,” said Sánchez.
Pennsylvania didn’t see major expansion of mail-in voting options until 2019, when Governor Tom Wolf signed Act 77, which allowed Pennsylvanians to vote by mail up to 50 days before an election and be placed on a list to permanently receive a mail-in ballot application.
Prior to Act 77, voters in Pa. had to provide an excuse to vote by mail, distinguishing Pennsylvania from 31 other states that provide no-excuse vote by mail options to their residents, increasing the opportunity to boost turnout and make voting more accessible.
“And when we finally got this expansion of mail-in voting during Covid without a [comprehensive] education campaign,” Sánchez said, “we didn’t maximize that expansion.”
And that was reflected in the turnout numbers in Sánchez’s district this year. During the primary, the 7th District had the lowest participation rate in the entire city. Despite these disparities, the 7th District overwhelmingly voted for Biden and other Democratic candidates in the general election. The Councilwoman says she’s proud of that, but she will be looking to the national Democratic Party to see what they’ll do differently in the next cycle to ensure all citizens feel empowered to vote.
According to an analysis by the Philadelphia Inquirer, there was a noticeable red shift amongst Latino voters in the 7th Ward. Votes for Biden in the Kensington and Fairhill neighborhoods fell by more than 2,000 compared to Clinton’s total in 2016. And votes for Trump more than doubled.
“The Democratic Party has historically taken the African American vote for granted, and Latinos are having that same experience right now,” said Sánchez.
“If they really want to validate how important the votes were from the African American and Latino community, they have to show us, so that’s what I’m going to be looking for.”
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.