A group of volunteers in South Philly's 48th Ward went door to door to encourage residents to apply for mail-in ballots

The relative convenience of Pennsylvania’s new vote-by-mail system has not proven enticing enough to overcome historical barriers entrenched in low-income neighborhoods of color, community organizers say.

In advance of the June 2 primary, applications for mail-in ballots, which were available to any voter for the first time in state history, showed a disparity that follows familiar lines. It could become even more stark if the disruptive unrest following nationwide police brutality protests continues through Election Day.

Compare a color-coded map released by Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt of the number of mail-in and absentee ballot applications by ward to another map measuring voter turnout by ward after the 2018 general election.


Areas of the city that usually have high turnout — Northwest Philly, Center City and the far Northeast — clocked the highest number of mail-in ballot applications. Meanwhile, historically voter-suppressed communities of color represented the smallest share.

Community leaders say the novelty of mail-in voting is compounded by skepticism and distrust of government arms like the postal system, plus general disengagement and voter apathy.

“I’ve got to be honest with you. It’s challenging because it’s something that’s never been done before,” said 48th ward leader Anton Moore. “So people are a little leery about doing mail-in voting because they’re not educated about it.”

Organizers like Moore and Rev. Robert Collier, president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, told Billy Penn that mail-in ballots fail to address root causes of depressed voter turnout in many of Philly’s neighborhoods of color.

“People want to ignore the fundamental issues as to why people vote,” said Moore, 34. “Make it easier for them to access the resources that are needed to make their lives better.”

It was only 55 years ago that African Americans secured the right to cast a ballot. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed then-common voter suppression tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests.

Suppression efforts in Pa. did not disappear with the act. Modern day tactics have included gerrymandering, where districts are strategically — and, at times, ridiculously — divided to favor one party’s victory, and attempts to pass laws requiring photo ID before casting a ballot.

“It’s easy to come into a neighborhood and say, ‘Vote vote vote,’ when someone is struggling to pay their rent or someone is struggling to feed their children. It must be deeper. They will ask the question, ‘What are you doing to help me? Why should I vote?’”

It’s organizers’ job to help instill hope, Moore said.

Moore’s 48th Ward adjusted its outreach after he noticed only about 500 residents applied for a mail-in ballot. Organizers in the Point Breeze/Grays Ferry ward made a push two weeks before the May 26 application deadline.

“We had to make phone calls. We had people, you know, going door to door, handing out mail-in [ballot applications]. We had text messages going out,” Moore said. “I had my committee people make videos, you know, encouraging people to do the mail-in ballot.”

After two weeks, Moore said around 2,000 people in the 48th Ward had signed up.

A volunteer grins after getting a resident to fill out an application to vote by mail Credit: Courtesy Anton Moore

Mail-in pushes see minimal results

The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t helped GOTV efforts. Collier and his Black Clergy team had planned a massive get-out-the-vote symposium designed to draw congregations from neighborhoods around the city.

Instead, social distancing forced a pivot to a multimedia campaign.

Black Clergy produced a 60-minute PSA called “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” designed to reach Black voters with information about the importance of voting — and an emphasis on using mail-in ballots.

“We know that if we didn’t make an emphasis on his mail-in voting, that there would be some discrepancies, because there are people who have been reluctant to go to the poll,” said Collier, 71. “We were very intentional about getting people to register for the ballot and to send it in.”

The Black Clergy also cohosted a vote-by-mail push with 12 churches around the city, including Mt. Pisgah AME in West Philly, Gospel Temple Baptist in Point Breeze and Janes Memorial United Methodist Church in Germantown.

To help allay distrust about postal service reliability in communities where stories about lost mail swirl, they made sure people knew they could drop off mail-in ballots at the City Commissioners office.

In total, the team submitted 400 applications.

Supporting in-person voting still important

Ray Murphy is deputy director of Pennsylvania Voice, a statewide voting rights organization working to empower young voters of color that works in Philly with groups like Asian Americans United and Penn Futures.

He said it was expected that traditionally disenfranchised voters would need more time to warm up to the mailing the vote.

“We knew that vote by mail tended to take a while for it to catch on,” said Murphy, 41. “And we knew it would be many years before we saw a significant percentage of the electorate choosing to vote by mail.”

Pennsylvania Voice is also working to make sure COVID-adjusted in-person voting doesn’t lead to more disenfranchisement.

The group will be monitoring hotspots around the city where consolidated polling places could lead to long lines and difficulty social distancing. The spots include Scanlon Rec, surrounded by a heavy Latinx population, and Northeast Philadelphia’s Simpson Rec, with a large number of Asian American and Pacific Islander residents.

Many aren’t registered to vote at all

Much of the Black Clergy constituency are phenotypical super voters: elderly, African-American Philadelphians involved in their faith communities and deeply trustful of their faith leaders.

Still, said Collier, during Black Clergy outreach events, organizers encounter a seemingly unending number of unregistered residents.

“It’s just astronomical, really,” Collier said. “It’s really that deep. And I can’t account for why. Because we’ve been trying to get the message out.”

The real challenge is convincing residents that every vote counts, Collier said.

“People who are poor and disenfranchised, they have to be approached in a different manner,” Collier said. “Other folks might disregard you, but we’re going to make sure that we use all of our energy, all of our people, to ensure that you get equitable treatment, with respect, and know about your right to vote and how to do that.”

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...