Municipal candidates joined Grassroots Advocacy for South Philadelphia (GRASP) for a Trick-or-Treat Meet-and-Greet on Oct. 16 to increase engagement for the Nov. 5 election.
Organizers said the event was designed as a unique way for South Philadelphians to meet their candidates and be more civically engaged. However, attendance was very low. GRASP organizers believed a severe rainstorm likely deterred South Philadelphians from attending, but also voter apathy regarding municipal general elections in the city is statistically widespread.
Dana Pavlichko is a co-chair of GRASP, which was founded after the 2016 presidential election by prospective committee people whose goal was to increase civic engagement in South Philadelphia.
The organization emphasizes exposing residents to candidates of all backgrounds, not just a singular party or group like other campaign events. South Philadelphians who have not yet dabbled in politics can come to GRASP events without declaring support for a specific party or candidate.
“With GRASP we can be nonpartisan, we can have way more candidates out, and it’s a much lower barrier of entry for someone to come,” said Pavlichko. “You don’t have to be that interested in politics to come by and just want to meet some neighbors.”
GRASP is a hyperlocal organization that fights voter apathy in the community. At the event on Oct. 16, the group displayed a gravestone denoting “low voter turnout.”
Voter turnout reached historic highs in the 2018 midterms nationwide. Approximately 52% of registered Philadelphia voters cast a gubernatorial ballot. The United States Census shows that Philadelphia was only approximately 1% away from national turnout numbers.
Voter turnout in Philadelphia municipal elections has historically been lower than midterm and presidential elections. Suburban counties in Southeast Pennsylvania have both a higher percentage of eligible voters registered and higher average turnout in municipal, gubernatorial, and presidential elections.
In 2015, approximately 23.8% of registered voters in the city voted for mayor in the general election, according to the Office of the Philadelphia City Commissioners. In the last decade of municipal elections, Bucks County turnout averaged 27.1%, and Montgomery County averaged 29.08%.
In comparison, 36.7% of registered voters in Philadelphia cast a ballot for governor in the 2014 gubernatorial election. Bucks turnout averaged 54.9% and Montgomery averaged 55.28% in gubernatorial elections in the last ten years.
Bucks County averaged 75.5% and Montgomery County averaged 75.21% turnout for presidential elections in the past 10 years. This is over 10% higher than the Philadelphia turnout for the presidential election in 2016.
Most of the event attendees on Oct. 16 were either a candidate themselves or directly involved with GRASP. In total, less than 20 people were in attendance including City Council candidate Michael Bradley.
Bradley is a Republican running in the 2nd District. He first became involved with politics as a ward leader in his community.
“I could take a class, I could read a book, or I could just jump in [to politics] and find out what it’s all about,” said Bradley. “After I got involved, I found out … it was more distasteful the more I learned.”
Bradley attributed voter apathy to how dirty politics can be, and he credited GRASP with being truly bipartisan and encouraging more civic engagement.
Joe Cox, who is running for an at-large seat, has attended GRASP meetings since he announced his candidacy as an independent.
“I believe that both parties are corrupt and we need independent representation in the city council,” said Cox. “We need somebody who’s going to call out both sides on things that they do wrong and not just one side.”
GRASP might be a nonpartisan organization, but candidates and organizers alike said it’s no secret that Philadelphia is a Democratic city.
Ahead of the 2015 municipal primary election, Office of the Philadelphia City Commissioners data showed there were 992,485 Philadelphians registered to vote. Almost 78.3% were Democrats.
This may have some bearing on voter turnout in general elections, according to Pavlichko.
“The goal is just to get people excited for the general election,” said Pavlichko. “A lot of times in Philly, the primary election — since we’re such a Democratic town — is more like the general election.”
With that mindset, primary elections in the city may seem more important to voters because once a candidate receives the Democratic nomination, it is extremely likely he or she will be elected to office.
However, voter turnout data from the Office of the Philadelphia City Commissioners shows that approximately the same number of voters turn out for the primaries as they do the general election. This might contradict the idea that voters in Philadelphia value primaries more than general elections.
In 2015, the mayoral primary only yielded 1% more voters than the general. In 2011, the mayoral primary yielded 16% of registered voters, and the general yielded 17%.
Voter turnout in mayoral primary elections averages to approximately 24.75% between 2003 and 2015, according to an infographic by Commissioner Al Schmidt. For general mayoral elections during the same time period, the average turnout was 29.15%.
Despite these numbers, GRASP is determined to make a difference in the election results this November, which Bradley considers priceless.
“Organizations like GRASP are really important,” said Bradley. “Because they do what the committee people and the ward system were set up to do. They were supposed to be a civic service, civic engagement, network throughout the city, and it turned into something much more ugly.”
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