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How 300,000 registered millennial voters can decide Philly’s future

Shortly after less than one-fifth of Philadelphia’s millennials voted in a state election last November, Young Involved Philly hosted an event to brainstorm ways to improve the city. Their ideas mostly ranged from impossible (destroy all cars) to realistic (inclusionary zoning for new housing developments) to idealistic (tie politicians’ pay or re-election to local students’ classroom performances).

But the most pragmatic idea may have come after the brainstorming session, from Sam Katz. Katz, a longtime politician who might run for mayor as an Independent this fall, told the young crowd that any changes they sought for Philadelphia could be accelerated immediately. All they had to do is vote.

“You,” he said, “will decide the who the next mayor is.”

And he’s right, at least according to the numbers. Millennials could decide the face of city politics right now, and it would be really, really easy to do so.

As of last week, 338,877 voters between the ages of 18 and 34 were registered in Philadelphia County, according to the office of the City Commissioners. If even 20 percent of all those voters showed up and supported a candidate they believed to best fit their interests, they would greatly influence the May primary. If 40 percent showed up, they could sway the election however they wanted.

This is how young voters in Philadelphia break down, with registration numbers coming from the City Commissioners’ office and the population estimate of non-registered voters based off U.S. Census data.

Because only one Republican is running for mayor in the primary, Melissa Murray Bailey, and Democrats don’t lose challenges to Republicans in Council, let’s focus on how young people could influence the Democratic ticket. In the 2007 Democratic primary, the last mayor’s race to not feature an incumbent, about 291,000 votes were cast. Michael Nutter won in a landslide with 106,805. If 40 percent of registered millennials voted — 100,000 of the 250,286 Democrats — and 75 percent of that group voted for the same candidate, they would contribute 75,000 votes. With just minimal support from voters in other age groups, their candidate would likely win.

In the at-large Council race, the highest vote total for a single candidate was about 95,000 (Jim Kenney), and the fifth place candidate (Blondell Reynolds Brown), who still advanced to the general election and won, garnered about 52,000 votes. Millennials could easily dominate this race, too.

Forty percent isn’t impossible. It’s not like you have to gain entry into the Pyramid Club to use your vote. In the 2012 Presidential general election, 182,923 Philadelphians age 18 to 34 voted, according to the City Commissioners.

But local elections have always been a different animal.

The City Commissioners did not have 18-to-34 voting data from the 2007 election, but in the 2011 Democratic and Republican primaries, only 16,929 people from this age bracket voted. Yikes. That’s well under 10 percent turnout, assuming about the same amount of young people were registered in 2011. Voter turnout in general was about 31 percent.

For young people, gaining a foothold has never been easier. At 29.5 percent, the city’s share of 18-to-34 year-olds is nearly 4 percent greater than it was in 2000. This population could also start caring about local elections at a time when nearly everyone else is becoming apathetic. Voter turnout during non-incumbent mayoral primaries has precipitously shifted downward since reaching a high point in 1983, with these numbers coming from the City Commissioners and the Inquirer.

If trends continue, expect no more than 30 percent of registered voters to vote in this mayoral election and likely even fewer. Less money is being spent on the mayor’s race and only one TV advertisement has aired so far. Unless something changes in the next two months, this race could be the least visible in ages.

For years, candidates, PACs and nonprofits have been trying to encourage the youth vote (sometimes in very puzzling ways: Frank Rizzo, running for mayor as a Republican in 1991, held a disco event for young people 12 years after disco died). In 2003, Young America PAC, Young Involved Philly and the Chamber of Commerce’s Young Professionals Network all tried to convince young people to vote. This year, Young Involved Philly is still around, and three millennial-backed PACs plan to spend money with hopes of influencing the race. Who knows if these groups or any candidate will be able to crack the code?

The past elections — even in 2011 — featured young people of other generations. This will be the first city election in which everyone in the 18-to-34 age bracket is a millennial (born between 1980 and 2000). The challenge to vote now rests with a youthful group that supposedly wants to act different than those from past generations.

Back in November, Katz wasn’t optimistic about a breakthrough. After talking about the possibility of millennials influencing the election, he added a dose of reality — he said they probably wouldn’t do it.

So far, Katz has been right. Despite their size and hype, millennials have done little to mix up the local power structure. Will this election change that? The future of city politics could easily belong to Philadelphia’s young people.

If they want it.

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