The polling place at Stetson school in Fairhill on Election Day

In the municipal primary last month, the Philadelphia neighborhood with one of the most hotly contested races saw the second-lowest turnout in the entire city.

Overall, voter participation in Philly’s May election was higher than expected. But some polling places were virtually barren compared to others. In the politically powerful Northwest, some of the city’s 66 wards saw turnout as high as 40%.

But about one-fifth of the city’s wards turned out at 15% or less — and they’re all pretty much concentrated in one part of North Philly. Norris Square. Fairhill. Kensington. Frankford. Juniata Park.

Low stakes? Far from it. These neighborhoods were ground zero for the slugfest that played out over the 7th District seat on City Council — a race that saw an astonishing $631,000 infusion from the soda industry. In the end, incumbent Maria Quiñones-Sánchez secured her fourth term over archnemesis Pa. Rep. Angel Cruz by a familiar razor-thin margin of fewer than 500 votes.

Just 15% of registered voters in the district cast ballots, a lackluster showing that’s roughly consistent with past elections.

What kept people from the polls? Residents and neighborhood leaders have some ideas.

Opioids and poverty

Marnie Loughrey-Aument, who helps run Kensington’s 33rd Ward with her mother Donna Aument, was out in the weeks leading up to Election Day to stump for Cruz, the challenger. Knocking on doors, she saw ample enthusiasm in her majority Latino neighborhood around K&A.

But come May 22, the “I’ll be there” crowd was predictably thin.

“We offered to drive them up, and they still didn’t come,” Loughrey-Aument said. “I think there’s a lot of apathy and disgust with the way things are.”

Two big things contribute to that attitude, she said:

  • The opioid crisis continues to ravage Kensington while people from other neighborhoods tell residents what’s best for them
  • The area has some of the highest poverty rates in the state

A stretch of residential blocks around K&A, an epicenter of the drug activity, made up a political division that was nearly last place for turnout in the entire city. Only 36 of 546 registered voters cast a ballot, according to City Commissioner’s data.

Aument-Loughrey and others faulted the rival candidates for not engaging in more constructive campaigns around the issues.

‘Party politics’ is a turnoff

On the issues, however, Quiñones-Sánchez and Cruz mostly agreed. They both opposed the proposed opening of an overdose prevention site in the neighborhood, for example.

Instead, the race was largely characterized by personalities rather than policy differences. (Neither pol returned phone calls for comment.)

Quiñones-Sánchez was running for the fourth time without support from the local Democratic powerbrokers, who have long been her enemies in the district. Cruz, who has been a state representative in the neighborhood for two decades, ran his campaign on the charge that Quiñones-Sánchez wasn’t a “team player” with fellow Democratic leaders.

“It was a very ugly personalized election,” said Rev. Adan Mareina, an activist and pastor at the West Kensington Ministries.

“People tune out,” he observed, “when the conversation sways away from the issues of schools and jobs and safety toward personality and party politics.”

Mareina does not entirely fault longtime residents for the low turnout. His church’s neighborhood is experiencing rapid gentrification in Norris Square, and he believes the newcomers weren’t storming the polls, either. (Demographic data was not readily available to confirm.)

Loughrey-Aument, the ward leader, assigns partial blame to the dearth of neighborhood polling places.

Several years ago, several polling locations were forced to close due to lack of handicap access, she said. A data scientist recently showed that Philly voters who live closer to their polling places are much more likely to vote than those who live farther away.

In parts of the neighborhood, Loughrey-Aument said some have to walk 15 minutes to cast their vote at Willard Elementary School. “They’re not doing it unless they have a kid in school — and school was closed that day,” she said.

Colleges and North Philadelphia

Who’s at fault for low turnout syndrome in city elections? Some say it’s the campaigns. Some say it’s up to the ward leaders.

Historically, the lower Northeast, River Wards and parts of North Philly show consistently low returns. But the pockets with the worst turnout last month (15% or less) were actually around University City and around the Temple area.

The division with the very lowest turnout citywide sits at the heart of Penn’s campus — just 1% of registered voters hit the polls. But college students often register and remain on the rolls for years, even if they’ve graduated or left the area.

Low turnout happens when there’s no presidential or congressional campaigns because there’s less money spent, but also because local campaigns are more risk-averse, said David Thornburgh, director of watchdog group Committee of Seventy,

City campaigns — especially those of incumbent officials — tend to focus all their energies on reaching the existing electorate, not expanding it.

“It’s only if increased turnout works for a particular candidate and it’s affordable that they’ll focus time and effort in increasing turnout,” Thornburgh said. “Otherwise, it’s too much time, money and effort.”

Philadelphia showed up at the polls last month in greater numbers than they did in both the 2018 and the 2017 primary elections.

But in a healthy democracy, is 23% turnout really something to celebrate?

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...