Election 2018

Primary Election Day in Philly: ‘I just didn’t really realize that was happening’

Turnout has the potential to be dismally low.

Many registered voters in Center City on Monday were not aware of the primary election

Many registered voters in Center City on Monday were not aware of the primary election

Mónica Marie Zorrilla and Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Of the 16 people Billy Penn surveyed about Tuesday’s election, only one named a candidate he was excited to support.

Zaur, a 20-year-old from North Philly, was psyched about progressive state Rep. Chris Rabb, who is up for reelection. Two issues, though: Zaur doesn’t live in Rabb’s district (it’s the 200th, in Chestnut Hill) — and he won’t be going to the polls, anyway.

“I’m not a citizen,” he said, explaining that he’s a recent immigrant. “I can’t vote.”

While Zaur thirsts after the opportunity to have a say in government, many eligible voters will not take advantage of that right.

Turnout for primaries in Philly is traditionally very low. Last year, around 18 percent of the electorate came out to the polls for the 2017 primary, and that was considered high for an odd-number year. The year prior, turnout was a whopping 39 percent — but that ballot included races for presidential candidates. Per numbers released by City Commissioner Al Schmidt, recent turnout in nonpresidential years hovers in the high teens or low 20s. This time around, there are no municipal races, and few intraparty battles that garnered wide attention.

Asked if she was planning to vote, a 21-year-old Penn grad named Aimee demurred. “No, I’m not,” she said, “at all.”

Still dressed in graduation regalia, Aimee, a resident of West Philly, said she wasn’t aware elections were being held on May 15. Her response was echoed by an overwhelming majority of the random selection of people who agreed to stop and chat while passing through Dilworth Park and Jefferson Station Monday afternoon.

Prospects for a high turnout seemed bleak. Many folks Billy Penn approached declined to answer questions about the election, possibly because they were reluctant to, as one woman put it, “show their ignorance.”

A woman also named Aimee, from West Philly, age 27, hadn’t been aware of the May 15 election before being interviewed, but said she would consider heading to the polls now that she knew about it.

Another West Philadelphian, Jacob, 23, who was resting by his bicycle at the foot of City Hall’s entrance, knew about the election, but said that since he’s registered in his hometown, he’s hoping maybe to vote there. It’s in the Lehigh Valley. (Good luck with the commute, Jacob.)

“No, no sabía que hay una elección,” answered Eduardo, 40, of South Philly.

Didn’t know there was an election and not planning to vote, similarly answered Kyra, 21, of North Philly; Brittany, 20, of Mt. Airy; Janine, 42, of the Northeast; Jordan, 27, of State College; and Jill, 21, of West Philly.

Caitlin, 28, a history teacher living in Logan Square, knew that there was an election because it affected her job: “I get tomorrow off.” Familiarizing herself with the candidates and races on the ballot was her Monday night “homework,” she said.

One thing Caitlin could bone up on is her congressional district — confusion that played out across the board.

None of the 16 people Billy Penn spoke with could correctly identify the United States congressional district where they live. A couple could name their U.S. representatives, and a few more gave a solid guess: they correctly named their City Council district or councilperson.

“Maria Quinones-Sanchez is my rep in Philly,” said a woman also named Maria, 27, of Fishtown. She named the governor, her two U.S. senators, and “Rep. Bob Brady, who’s not running for reelection. I think that’s everyone.”

“Who our [U.S.] representative is? I don’t know the number,” answered Craig, 58, from East Passyunk, “but I think our representative is Squilla.”

In this case, there’s excuse for the confusion. This year’s primary election comes on the heels of the massive congressional redistricting of the entire state. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in January that Pa.’s congressional district map “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated the state’s constitution because it was too gerrymandered, and it ordered the legislature to submit a new map by Feb. 15 — just three months before the primary.

Republican lawmakers proposed a map that Gov. Wolf swiftly vetoed, missing the court-mandated deadline and leaving it up to the state Supreme Court to create its own map.

So this year, there’s a new map. And Republicans and Democrats alike agree that the new districts have probably thrown voters off.

But pleading ignorance because of the map kerfluffle is only valid in the race for U.S. Congress. Not the whole ballot.

“What’s the election?” asked 29-year-old Brian of East Passyunk, who seemed genuinely interested, just unaware. “I just didn’t really realize that was happening.

“I’m from Florida,” he continued, “so maybe that explains my ignorance.”