Updated at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday
Today in the voting booths across Philadelphia, voters saw something like this: An uncompetitive mayoral race, a chance to select some new City Council members and a number of judicial elections that are important for the future of the state, but will likely never get the attention they might deserve. As one expert put it, if more than one in four registered voters actually come to the polls today, “it’s time to break out the champagne.”
Was today’s voter turnout be the worst mayoral election turnout in Philadelphia history? It appears no.
With 95 percent of precincts reporting Tuesday night after polls closed, about 25 percent of registered voters in Philadelphia made it to the polls, meaning turnout will hover close to the 27 percent of registered voters in Philadelphia who bothered to show up to the polls in May for the primary.
The mayoral race featured Democrat Jim Kenney, a longtime City Councilman, and businesswoman Melissa Murray Bailey, a Republican. In Philadelphia, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 7 to 1. Kenney crushed Murray Bailey and won in a landslide, finishing with more than 80 percent of the vote.
The turnout is higher than in 2011 when Mayor Michael Nutter was re-elected by 20 percent of the electorate, and close to Nutter’s first bid for mayor in 2007 when turnout was at 29 percent.
It also means Philadelphia doesn’t have the worst voter turnout in the country, thanks to our friends in some other major cities who are also less excited about their civic duties.
Let’s look first at Philadelphia:
It really wasn’t always this bad. As recently as 2003, 50 percent of Philadelphians came to the polls to elect John Street over Sam Katz, who was the last Republican to pitch a real fight against a Democrat for the mayor’s office. In 1991, more than 60 percent of registered voters came to the polls to elect Ed Rendell for mayor as the city was facing massive economic struggles and was in search of a leader who could regain stability for the city.
The below graph shows data from the farthest back we could track down, which goes back to the 1951 mayoral race when seven out of 10 registered voters in Philadelphia came to the polls for that year’s election.
It’s a pretty clear trend. Upticks in voter engagement can be seen in years when the stakes were high, like in 1971 when 77 percent of registered voters came to the polls and the then-police commissioner (and always controversial figure) Frank Rizzo was elected mayor. In 1983, 63 percent of people turned out to elect Wilson Goode, the city’s first black mayor.
There’s one caveat here: Voter turnout was certainly higher in Philadelphia in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. But that means that a higher percentage of people came to the polls. Those numbers are skewed higher than now because voter registration when our parents and grandparents were our age was much lower. In those years, less than half the city was registered to vote. Today about two thirds of the city is registered.
Voter turnout in the 2011 mayoral election that ended in Mayor Michael Nutter being re-elected featured a mere 20 percent of registered voters in Philadelphia. Now that mayoral race included an incumbent, which almost always means lower voter turnout. During the mayoral primary, it was a bit higher at 27 percent. (But when you look specifically at millennials, the picture gets more grim. Young people make up the largest group of the electorate; only 12 percent of registered millennials came out to vote, though.)
What’s it all mean? If less than 20 percent of registered voters in Philadelphia had gone to the polls — less than the number of people who came to re-elect Nutter — it would have been the worst voter turnout the city has seen since at least 1951 when Joseph Sill Clark Jr. was elected mayor of the city, even before the more well-known Richardson Dilworth.
Numerically speaking, 20 percent of registered voters translates roughly to about 200,000 people. For the 2015 primary, 992,479 Philadelphians were registered to vote. In recent years, voter registration has hardly fluctuated even as more people move to the city, however, that could be different this year as thousands of people across the state took advantage of the new online registration system.
Philadelphia could have set a record today for the worst voter turnout in decades here. It could have also been worse than any voter turnout New York has ever seen. Only 26 percent of voters in New York came to the polls to elect Bill De Blasio in their last mayoral election, which was the city’s lowest voter turnout since World War II. The worst voter turnout in Chicago was in 2007 when 33 percent of registered voters showed up, and the worst in LA was 2009 when 18 percent showed.
Here’s a look at those four major cities and how voter turnout in all four has sharply declined over the last several decades. Philadelphia’s showing in 2011 was the second worst of all four cities, save for LA’s abysmal 2009 turnout.
The picture changes though when you look at more cities. This chart shows what voter turnout was for the last mayoral election in 22 of the nation’s largest cities. As you can see, Philadelphia’s 20 percent mark puts it at 13th, right in the middle of the pack. Turnout in El Paso and San Antonio has been consistently low. In San Antonio’s 2011 mayoral election, 7 percent of registered voters came to the polls. Earlier this year for another mayoral election there, things were slightly better: 14 percent showed.
For proper context, these are the same 22 cities ranked by voter turnout and this graph averages the voter turnouts of the last two decisive mayoral elections to account for incumbents or other variables. The picture stays pretty similar, and Philadelphia comes in ninth of the 22 cities. Cities in the south consistently are seeing lower voter turnouts than in, say, California or the Northeast.
Philadelphia could have set its own record today if fewer than 200,000 made it out to the polls. To be worse than the worst voter turnout in a major city we could track down, fewer than 70,000 people would have had to have come to the polls. That was unlikely.
But as we know from experience over the last several years in Philadelphia politics, it also probably wasn’t time to break out the champagne.