Organizers, city officials look to boost turnout in an off-year election

People take part in a rally demanding a fair count of the votes of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, in Philadelphia
People hold signs as they take part in a rally demanding a fair count of the votes of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, in Philadelphia, on Nov. 4, 2020.
REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Although Tuesday’s general election in Philadelphia lacks the draw of a national candidate and the city’s most high-profile races — City Controller and District Attorney — are all but settled, get out the vote efforts are persisting across the region.

Organizations like Philadelphia’s branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, for example, wrestled with off-year voter apathy using a clear and concise message — November’s election is consequential for the city’s Muslim community. Dr. Ahmet Tekelioglu, CAIR’s director of outreach and education, noted that citywide races impact issues such as inclusion and equity concerns in schools, zoning permits for new mosque construction, and, perhaps most importantly, criminal justice matters, many of which disadvantage Muslim Americans. 

In addition, as misinformation ran rampant during last year’s presidential election, it left a lasting impression on Tekelioglu and other area organizers. The rash of ballot-challenging lawsuits by former President Donald Trump, combined with the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol Building in Washington, has marginalized communities, including Muslim Americans, wary of increased voter suppression tactics. 

“One benefit is that our Muslim American community is internally very diverse,” Tekelioglu said. “We have a large African American Muslim community who are steeped in the civic culture and sometimes their voice and their leadership helps in other communities, and what we are seeing is increased appreciation for that.”

Philadelphia City Commissioner Omar Sabir poses for a portrait in Philadelphia. REUTERS/Linda So

Philadelphians might be surprised to learn about Tuesday’s general election, with the city’s top candidate, District Attorney Larry Krasner, running a muted campaign with few advertisements and refusing to debate his Republican challenger. But civic organizations remain steadfast in their efforts to get out the vote, either in-person or by mail, as several judicial candidates and key ballot questions look to play a critical role in shaping the region’s future. With low turnout expected for a series of uncontested and noncompetitive races, activists remain hopeful that their persistence will help keep voters engaged.

The real challenge this year lies with Philadelphia’s City Commissioners, the bipartisan group of elected officials who maintained the credibility of the 2020 vote despite a national spotlight, personal harassment, and allegations of fraud by the former president — all of which were false.

“That’s a baptism by fire,” City Commissioner Omar Sabir, a Democrat, said. “The one thing I learned was that there’s not going to be as many resources available as there is during the presidential election.”

Historically, turnout for Philadelphia’s off-year elections is low, with occasional surges during heated battles for City Council, district attorney, or the mayor’s office. Out of an average of 1.1 million registered voters, odd-year elections without a national focus in the city struggle to attract 25% of those eligible. The 2013 district attorney’s race garnered so little interest that only 11% of the voting-age populace bothered to cast a ballot that year. 

In contrast, participation in the 2020 presidential election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden reached record highs in Philadelphia, as 68% of registered voters, almost 750,000 people, cast ballots either in-person or by mail. While Sabir doesn’t expect such high numbers on Tuesday, his office continues to engage the electorate, using strategic partnerships to try and increase voter participation. 

Carri Dusza holds a placard stating “LEGAL VOTES ONLY” the day after an election victory was called for President Joe Biden, in Philadelphia, on Nov. 8, 2020. REUTERS/Mark Makela

The City Commissioners Office is focused on young voters, voter accountability, and strategic partnerships heading into Nov. 2. According to Sabir, get out the vote efforts include social media and personal networks, public service announcements, and innovative collaborations with groups like Black Voters Matter.

“It’s basically teaming up with different grassroots organizations, different social service organizations, churches, masjids, synagogues,” the commissioner said. “Coming on talk radio and actually being physically present on the street. And that’s coming to the transit stops, supermarkets, the schools. It’s being inside of people’s faces, constantly reminding them how important it is to vote.” 

But this year, even the weather seemed determined to disrupt organizers’ plans. Last week’s rainstorms forced the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP to move its in-person candidate forum, one of the few opportunities voters have to stand in front of incumbents and their challengers, from the Nicetown Community Development Corporation to Zoom. Still, chapter President Catherine Hicks hosted a spirited, well-attended event that included remarks from several judicial hopefuls and current City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, who is running unopposed this year. 

Ballot questions were also discussed, although, as a standard practice, the NAACP does not take any positions or endorse any candidates for office during elections.

“We have actually been joining with the commissioner’s office with getting out the vote,” Hicks said. “We actually had a day where we had people come in to register to vote, to also pick up the ballots — the mail in ballots — and we had a pretty good turnout for that. So we’re here every day.”

The final turnout on Tuesday remains to be seen, but organizers across the city will continue to encourage Philadelphians to vote until then.

“We’re hopeful that these elections will help increase our community members connection to the civic process,” Tekelioglu said.

Philadelphia’s general election is Tuesday, Nov. 2. For information about voting, registration, help finding your polling place, and more, visit  myvotemyway.philadelphiavotes.com

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