Election 2019

‘Local elections matter’: Voter turnout wows Philly in 2019 primary

Almost a quarter of the city voted, despite lack of top-ticket battles.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Some races went as expected while others defied conventional wisdom, but either way, another Philly primary election is in the books. How many of us actually had a hand in making those decisions?

An early count suggests that roughly 23 percent of the city turned out on Tuesday, per City Commissioner Al Schmidt.

Quick disclaimer: Exact numbers of how many people voted aren’t available yet. Before disseminating official data, the City Commissioners office still has to tally up absentee ballots. That won’t even begin until Friday, as votes from military and overseas citizens are still coming in.

In the meantime, we can get good estimates by looking at the public count — the tally of how many votes were cast on physical voting machines on May 21.

Tentative turnout looks to have been more than a third higher than the most recent municipal election in 2017, when just 17 percent of the city showed up to elect DA Larry Krasner, among others. It appears to fall just short of the most recent mayoral election, in 2015. That race — which was hotly contested because there was no incumbent — brought out 27 percent of Philadelphia voters to send Jim Kenney toward his first term.

The 2019 primary numbers are encouraging, said political consultant Mustafa Rashed. “That we were able to get people to turn out during a not-as-contentious primary is pretty good.”

This year’s participation stacks up pretty well against comparable past elections. If you consider only the mayoral races with an incumbent going for their second term, like this one, Philly’s turnout is on an upward trend — from 19 percent in 2003, to 20 percent in 2011, then 23 percent this year.

‘Trump effect’ continues

Observers in Philly attribute climbing Election Day attendance to the wakeup call known as President Donald Trump.

“I think people’s perception of politics has changed forever after what happened in 2016,” said Isaiah Thomas, who won enough votes Tuesday to become one of the Democratic nominees for an at-large City Council seat. “It was an opportunity to raise awareness around odd-year elections, the local races.”

Rashed, the political consultant, concurred. “It crystallized just how local elections matter,” he said. “I’m always the first person to complain about how national elections steal the attention, but if that’s driving people to the polls in local races, I think that’s a good thing.”

So far, Commissioner Schmidt said he can tell turnout is up in a broad swath of central Philadelphia — from University City through Center City on up to Fishtown. Meanwhile, seems to him like fewer voters showed up in the Northeast.

For additional data, we’ll just have to wait. It’ll take a few weeks for the Commissioners office to tally up things like demographic turnout by race, gender and age. Said Schmidt: “you don’t actually know until the numbers come in.”

How 800 voters predicted turnout for the entire city

Though we don’t have official numbers yet, there’s a working model to predict turnout — and this year it proved eerily accurate.

A blog called Sixty-Six Wards kept track of voter activity from the moment the polls opened on Tuesday. It asked voters all over the city to submit some basic info about their trip to the booth, and as the crowd-sourced data trickled in, the tracker charted political participation in real time.

Using data from just 835 voters, the blog managed to predict turnout almost exactly.

When all was said and done, Sixty-Six Wards calculated that between 230 and 275k people hit the polls on Tuesday. The public count so far clocks in at 237,814.

The person behind the screen is West Philadelphian Jonathan Tannen, a data scientist with a Ph.D. in urban planning. He founded his blog in advance of the May 2018 primary. In just three elections, his methodology has become respected and watched by city politicos.

How does it work? Tannen asks Philadephians to submit the time they voted, their division, and their “voter number” at their polling place. Using historic trends in each division’s turnout, some math happens (¯\_(ツ)_/¯) and the blog populates with results throughout the day.

The service is so useful, Rashed said, he expects campaign staffers to start using it more to adjust their strategies as Election Day unfolds.

“It’s great for us to pontificate on it,” he said. “There has to be a way to utilize that data and have a response.”

Want some more? Explore other Election 2019 stories.

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