Election 2020

In low-turnout North Philly, voters battle misinformation to get out and vote early

Oct. 27 deadline to request a mail ballot approaches as officials push to spread info about satellite offices.

Outside the satellite voting center at Jules E. Mastbaum School in Kensington.

Outside the satellite voting center at Jules E. Mastbaum School in Kensington.

Max Marin / Billy Penn
maxmarin-byline

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Wilson Vazquez came to Julia De Burgos Elementary School determined to vote early on Wednesday morning.

Too early.

The 53-year-old contractor had done a search for “voting location near me” on Google, and plugged his address into the search engine’s popup tool, which is powered by the nonpartisan voter engagement firm Democracy Works. It sent him to De Burgos, a few miles away from his home in Olney. Opening time: 9:30 a.m., the tool informed him.

Problem was, the listed hours were incorrect. Others waiting in line with him at 11 a.m. had been waiting for over an hour, also confused by the online results.

“I’ve seen several people leave,” Vazquez said. “That’s why you see short lines like this.”

Billy Penn pointed out the error to the Philadelphia Office of City Commissioners, which runs the city elections, and a spokesperson said the office is now contacting the election software firm to request a fix. But for Vazquez, it’s these simple confusions that can dissuade voters in this predominantly Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood, where turnout is notoriously dismal.


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The trend appears to be also true of mail-in voting. De Burgos has been the least active satellite center since it opened three weeks ago, according to data provided by the City Commissioners. Philadelphia voters have returned more than 220,000 mail ballots to date, but just 3% of the nearly 60,000 ballots returned via satellite centers to date came through the De Burgos location. The City Hall and Roxborough voting centers, by contrast, received nearly 50% of the ballots.

By the time doors opened at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, the line had grown to a few dozen people, snaking around the block. Many walked or drove from miles away to apply and vote with a mail ballot. They waited anxiously, thinking about the kids they left at home to take online classes.

Like Vazquez, some said they struggled with various bits of misinformation and confusion, but placed their chaotic lives on hold for the morning to carve out an hour or two they’d need to cast their ballots.

Conni Scott had already voted, but spent an hour outside De Burgos to accompany her daughter to apply for and cast her mail ballot.

“I wanted to make sure, because my vote counts,” said Scott.

Monica (left) and Connie Scott used Julia De Burgos elementary school’s satellite voting center to cast their mail ballots

Monica (left) and Connie Scott used Julia De Burgos elementary school’s satellite voting center to cast their mail ballots

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Spreading the word in the neighborhoods

James Lipscomb, a 64-year-old Kensington resident, was shocked to see the line as long as it was, knowing how rarely his neighborhood votes. But he said he’s never missed an election, and travelling two miles to vote early was a non-issue for him.

Still, he was surprised to learn that, just days prior, a new satellite voting location had opened up at Jules E. Mastbaum High School. It’s just blocks from his house, whereas he drove two miles to get here.

“I got it done though, so I’m happy,” Lipscomb said. “My day’s complete.”

Over at Mastbaum, there was no line and election staff said they were still trying to get the word out about the location. Vazquez said outreach was lacking and it was hard enough for people he knew to figure out what they needed to vote early — especially for Spanish speakers.

“They should advertise it so people can get out here and get it done,” Vazquez said. “They need to do a better job helping the elderly get out here or helping them get the mail-in ballots. They’re scared, and if they don’t have help, they’ll just stay home.”

He suggested advertising on La Mega 1057 — a popular Spanish-language radio station in the city. A spokesperson for the City Commissioners said that they had gone above and beyond advertising within the community, including in Spanish-language media.

“We have announced the new sites on our website, on social media, we issued a press release and did press interviews highlighting the new office openings, and we are advertising the locations on our website,” said Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio.

Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, whose district encompasses these neighborhoods, said she would try to spread the word. Even she hadn’t known the Mastbaum school in her district only converted to a full service voting site — as opposed to just a ballot dropoff site — earlier this week.

“The rollout has been a bumpy ride, but we’re doing the best we can,” Quiñones-Sánchez said.

Kensington resident James Lipscomb, 64, emerges from voting at the De Burgos school.

Kensington resident James Lipscomb, 64, emerges from voting at the De Burgos school.

Max Marin / Billy Penn

Such a thing as too much voter engagement?

Ballot return figures suggest voter engagement has been lagging behind the city’s Latino community. In a boost to drive turnout among this population, Quiñones-Sánchez noted, the glut of voter engagement marketing can have an adverse effect.

Political campaigns, nonpartisan election advocacy groups and government-run election offices have repeatedly flooded mailboxes across battleground Pennsylvania with information on voting, mail-in ballots and deadlines. Sometimes there’s conflicting information.

“The seniors are incredibly confused,” Quiñones-Sánchez said.

Other residents praised the advanced notice they got from both city officials and other groups. Nearly a dozen people voting early on Wednesday outside De Burgos said they knew about the location because they got notices in the mail. Standing in line, neighborhood resident Debora says she’s gotten almost too much mail.

“I’m tired of getting stuff in my mail,” she said, with a laugh. “They’re doing an excellent job.”

Ultimately, it was a plus — because casting her ballot early means a lot to her.

“I have the right to vote now — and I want to exercise my right. Because I understand, as a Black American, a lot of people died for my right to vote.”

Right now, satellite office locations are operating Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Friday through Sunday each week.

To chat with a live person about any question you have regarding voting, text EQUALINFO to 73224.

Want some more? Explore other Election 2020 stories.

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