Turnout in Philadelphia fell in the 2020 midterm elections despite victories for the Palestinian Democrats

The clean results of the Pennsylvania Democrats’ midterm election have masked a major warning sign for the party: Philadelphia is falling further behind.

Voter turnout in midterm elections always decreases after presidential elections. But Philly’s overall turnout fell the most of any county in the state. It is the third straight election in which Philly’s share of the state vote has declined.

An Inquirer analysis of the near-final 2022 results and those from past elections raises questions about the city’s future role in statewide races and both parties’ ability to connect with Black and Hispanic neighborhoods where many voters have stayed home :

  • Philly’s vote count declined 33% as of 2020, more than any other county and the statewide average of 22%.

  • It’s not just a 2020 comparison: that year there was a wide disparity between turnout in Philly and the rest of the state compared to any federal election since at least 2000.

  • Allegheny County, home of Pittsburgh, has about 133,000 fewer voters than Philly — but cast about 67,000 more ballots in this election.

  • Philadelphia’s share of the state’s total Democratic vote has fallen from 20% in 2016 to 15% this year.

  • Overall turnout fell the most in Hispanic parts of the city and to a lesser extent in black neighborhoods.

The decline in Latino and Black neighborhoods reflects a nationwide trend, with low turnout in communities of color in a number of urban areas. But because of Philadelphia’s sheer size — and how overwhelmingly democratic it is — even small dips can mean thousands or tens of thousands of votes lost. If Philadelphia’s turnout decline had matched that of the state, about 84,000 more voters would have cast their ballots.

That could be a foreshadowing for the Pennsylvania Democrats, who nonetheless celebrated victories up and down the vote. John Fetterman outperformed Joe Biden in most parts of the state, including in Philadelphia, where he essentially got a bigger slice of a much smaller pie. But if that pie continues to shrink, it’ll be bad news for Democrats, said JJ Balaban, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist who has helped run statewide campaigns.

“Any drop in the number of Philadelphians voting is terrible for the Democratic chances of a statewide victory,” he said, given that about 80% of Philadelphians vote Democratic.

“In the long run, if Philadelphia votes at a disproportionately low level, it becomes harder for Democrats to win elections,” Balaban said. “It’s not going to make it impossible… but it just makes it harder. So it’s a real problem.”

The county-level results show that Philly’s turnout declines are sharpest in black neighborhoods and sharpest in Latino neighborhoods.

And this isn’t just a Philadelphia phenomenon. There is a moderate correlation between race and voter turnout in Pennsylvania cities: in general, the whiter the city, the flatter the decline. Pittsburgh’s voter turnout declined a little more than the rest of the state, but it did particularly low in majority black counties. cities in North Carolina and Ohio with a high population of black voters also had lower voter turnout.

In Pennsylvania, the sharpest declines were in Latino-heavy cities like Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton, Reading, and Allentown, where turnout fell even more than Philadelphia (Philadelphia is the only city in the state that is also a county). Some community leaders said turnout in Latino communities showed a failure by candidates and both parties to connect with long-neglected voters.

“There’s a lot to be said for how ignored Latinos feel about the electoral system,” said Erika Almirón, a senior organizer at Mijente, a national Latino social justice group based in Philadelphia. “And it manifests in not wanting to participate, and if we want those numbers to improve, candidates have to be knocking on doors, we need resources.”

Philadelphia’s Latino-heavy neighborhoods have long been the hardest to reach, and they’ve had by far the biggest downturns this year.

Almirón helped with a bilingual campaign in the city’s 42nd Precinct near Hunting Park in North Philadelphia the week before the election. The goal was to lure people to show up for the presidential election but not for the midterms. Despite this, most of the borough’s 2020 voters sat this one out.

Almirón said her group was unable to secure funding to start earlier.

“Our community is very rarely prioritized,” she said. “Nobody talks to them, or the funding is late — or the advertisers aren’t our people, or they’re not bilingual.”

Will Gonzalez, leader of the local Latino community coalition Ceiba, said he was concerned about the growing disengagement. The Latino population continues to grow and he’s trying to get people to recognize the power of their voice. But there are also structural obstacles, Gonzalez said, pointing to Philadelphia’s deep poverty and economic struggles. The lowest turnout and largest declines were in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, which are also poor and low-income.

“You’re dealing with communities on the fringes,” Gonzalez said.

Almirón said politicians and parties were slow to change things.

“Sometimes shifting specific populations is a priority, rather than engaging the population that no one speaks to,” she said. “So all this effort to speak to white suburban women rather than invest and speak to a community that you don’t speak to and you probably have a better chance of just voting with.”

The Census Bureau estimates that approximately 12% of Philadelphia’s eligible voters are Hispanic or Latino, and the state has approximately 600,000 Latinos of voting age.

“If Latinos are hired by the Democratic Party,” Almirón said, “we wouldn’t have a swing state in Pennsylvania.”

Several black-majority neighborhoods in Philadelphia saw less steep but still significant declines in voter turnout.

Malcolm Kenyatta, a state representative in North Philly, said it hurt not to have hometown candidates on the ballot. But he believes politicians need to speak more to voters to fully understand what is happening.

“This is more important than politics,” Kenyatta said. “There are a lot of people who are giving up government, giving up the idea that government can work.”

Kenyatta said the toll a pandemic, deep poverty and gun violence have taken on many black voters cannot be underestimated.

What the shifting turnout patterns mean for Philadelphia’s political clout — and for power within the city — remains to be seen.

The Democrats won large numbers of independent voters and voters in rural areas where the party has not traditionally done well. Some may have been particularly motivated to oppose pro-Trump candidates.

Fetterman’s campaign manager, Brendan McPhillips, noted that increasing the Democrat share of votes in those areas would naturally decrease Philly’s. Nevertheless, elections often depend on the strengths of individual candidates, which change from year to year.

“We’re not always going to have the luxury of running against Doug Mastriano,” Balaban said, referring to the GOP gubernatorial nominee.

If the city’s voting rights decline, it could erode some of its influence in Harrisburg, said Rep. Danilo Burgos, a Democrat representing parts of North Philly.

“It can potentially mean a decrease in resources to help the community,” he said.

Yet Philadelphia continues to be the bedrock of the state’s Democratic Party. Joanna McClinton, who represents parts of Southwest Philadelphia, is poised to become the next House Speaker, and Jordan Harris, who represents parts of Grays Ferry and Point Breeze, is the Democratic whip.

And the city’s influence extends into the growing suburbs that surround it, which have shifted leftward with its growth and become an ever-growing source of Democratic votes. The Philadelphia area still has more Democratic voters than anywhere else in the state.

There are also opportunities in the levy, Burgos said: voters who have shown up before but not this time could still get involved in the future. Burgos called this constituency a potentially powerful “sleeping giant”.

And elections are held every six months, Burgos and others noted — beginning with next year’s critical and open race for mayor of Philadelphia.

“The ground is fertile and Philadelphia has shown that with the right candidates, people go out to vote,” Burgos said. “It’s going to take a lot of people working together to get this voting bloc engaged so we can have numbers again that are indicative of the population.”

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