Philadelphia Skyline
Joan Brady

Donald Trump’s win mobilizes young Philly voters

Emails poured into the Philadelphia 3.0 inbox the days after the election. Many were from people who had previously never made contact with the millennial political organization, and they were coming in at a rate staffers were not accustomed to seeing. The majority of emailers expressed they wanted to do something in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and weren’t quite sure what it could be.

Young Involved Philadelphia has seen much of the same. The nonprofit’s annual State of Young Philly conference held last week drew 2,000 people, compared to 1,300 last year — including 300 packing a session on how to run for office. These groups, as well as other millennial-based organizations like Philly Set Go, have been around. But they’re in a new position these days: A seemingly unprecedented amount of young people do want to get involved, and now they’re trying to keep the momentum going locally in what too often becomes a dead period between presidential elections.

“It’s a good problem to have,” said Jon Geeting, Philadelphia 3.0’s director of engagement.

The shock of Trump’s victory resounded at a national level. Philadelphia 3.0 is encouraging young residents reeling from it to get involved as locally as possible, by considering a run for the seat of committee person.  

Every one of Philadelphia’s 1,600-plus voting divisions can feature up to four committee persons – two for the Democrats and two for the Republicans. A committee person’s most apparent job is on Election Day. He or she helps manage the division, offering assistance to the poll workers and helping the party get out the vote (and yes, dispensing street money when it’s available).

But in between elections, committee people help decide who gets the party’s endorsement. They can also persuade candidates to visit their neighborhood and listen to issues most important to residents. They’re ideally a conduit between a given neighborhood and the political system.

So far, Geeting said, about 275 people have expressed interest in running for a committee seat. Philadelphia 3.0 crunched the math on the Democratic side (it plans to do the same on the Republican side soon) and found the number of votes needed to win a committee seat usually around a few dozen and rarely not much more than 100. Some committee seats, including in neighborhoods near Center City, are empty.

Of course, incumbents could respond with higher turnout. In 2014, many young people challenged for committee seats in Graduate Hospital and Point Breeze, with several in G-Ho finding success but the majority mostly failing.

“Will people lose? Yes,” Geeting said. “But I think it’s important people try. Even if you aren’t successful the first time you can meet people.”

The bigger problem might be keeping them interested. Apathy for local Philadelphia elections, particularly among residents ages 18 to 34, is no secret. In the 2015 mayoral primary, when all City Council seats and the mayor were effectively decided, 12 percent of registered millennials turned out to vote (the good news is Philly’s local voters might actually be more engaged than those in other big cities).

The next election for committee seats won’t be until spring 2018. Next year, local elections are for District Attorney, Controller and judges — traditionally not positions that mobilize voters.

Nick Marzano, outgoing president of Young Involved Philadelphia, said this is a time the civic organization traditionally “goes into hibernation” for a few months, given a big election and the annual State of Young Philly have just ended. But YIP has seen so many encouraging signs of increased engagement.

Maiki Paul, who sits on YIP’s board of directors, said she hopes to capitalize on the increased attention less through traditional politics and more through community involvement. Leaders of the group hosted a conference call Tuesday to discuss ideas for an event about community organizing.           

“There’s a hunger for it,” Paul said. “So we’ll do our best.”

Philadelphia 3.0 plans to keep prospective candidates for committee seats engaged by educating them for the next one and a half years. Workshops are planned, and Geeting would like make sure anyone who runs knows exactly how to fill out candidate petition forms, get a street list for their divisions and craft the right messages on signs for a candidacy.     

“What we want to do,” he said, “is get people turnkey ready.”

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