With the presidential election behind us, Philly’s politics junkies are beginning to cast their gaze to 2014, when Gov. Tom Corbett — whose approval ratings are in the gutter since he slashed funding for schools — will seek re-election. They might be better served to first look back, to 2010, when only 40 percent of registered Philadelphia voters bothered to cast a ballot for governor. That was roughly 267,000 fewer than the still-piddling 60 percent turnout for president this November. And that’s just counting registered voters.
Philadelphians consistently vote at lower rates than Pennsylvanians in general: 7 percentage points less than the statewide average in both 2010 and 2012. Higher Philly turnout may not have saved Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Onorato’s troubled 2010 campaign, but it probably would have stopped conservative Sen. Pat Toomey’s narrow 80,299-vote defeat of Democrat Joe Sestak. If all the Philadelphians who supported Obama in 2012 had voted Sestak in 2010, he likely would have won.
The poorest and youngest Americans, key Democratic constituencies, are the least likely to vote, according to Census data. This city has a vast population of poor people who may feel alienated from a political system that panders to suburban voters and big business. It’s understandable — though not beneficial. Meanwhile, many students and young professionals range from indifferent to ignorant when it comes to state and local politics; transplants think of Philadelphia more as a coastal city linked to Washington and New York than as part of a state called Pennsylvania, reading the New York Times online if they read any newspaper at all. And the forces that engaged Philadelphians in politics in the past are waning. Schools obsessed with test prep fail to teach civics; labor unions that educated workers and brought them to the polls have been decimated; and Philly’s two battered daily newspapers have a grand total of three reporters in Harrisburg.
The problem of apathy isn’t unique to Philadelphia: The U.S. has one of the lowest voting rates of any wealthy democracy. But its impact is especially damaging here, in a Democratic city wedged into a Republican-run state.
“We want to make sure that they don’t get 50 percent [turnout],” Corbett told supporters in 2010, referring to Philly Democrats. “Keep that down.”
The state’s voter-ID law, a brazen effort to suppress Democratic votes, may be implemented by 2014. But if Philadelphians don’t get their act together, Corbett won’t need it.