Patricia Davenport (L) and Marion Parks (R), poll workers at Sharon Baptist Church in West Philadelphia

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Things were sleepy in the 7 o’clock hour on Tuesday in West Philadelphia — and not just because it was early.

The primary election kicked off with low in-person turnout at polling locations across the city, as voters cast ballots for Philly’s next district attorney and a slate of judges.

More than an hour and a quarter after polls opened at Sharon Baptist Church in the 52nd Ward, for example, just five people had come to cast a vote in person. Meanwhile, poll worker Patricia Davenport held three sheets of paper denoting 21 voters whose mail ballots had already been received. She herself was one of them.

The ward’s judge of elections, Edward West, also voted by mail. He said low turnout was expected.

“People are not as interested in primaries,” said West, 66. Asked whether he thought last fall’s excitement could translate into increased engagement going forward, West, who’s worked at the polls for 10 years, was pragmatic. “You hope and pray, but don’t count on it,” he said.

The 2021 primary marks the first election since November’s presidential contest, which saw Philly’s highest voter turnout in 35 years.

When all the votes had been counted in November, 750k people turned out, including about half who voted by mail. Ahead of this off-year primary, only about 85k people had requested mail ballots as of mid-May, per the City Commissioners.

The slow drip was apparent at James Rhoads Elementary on 50th and Parrish. In its first half-hour, just two people walked into the 44th Ward location to cast votes.

“We might get to 120 [voters], if that,” guessed voting machine technician Kimberly Morris.

Eastern State Penitentiary in Fairmount has a polling location inside and a mail ballot drop box outside — which observers said appeared more popular than the voting booth.

Adam Gilberg said he’d been there since about 7:30 a.m., stumping for a judge candidate.

“I’d say there’s at least double the amount of people dropping off mail-in ballots as opposed to going inside and voting,” Gilberg said. “Pulling up on their bikes, in their cars, walking their dogs and throwing their ballots in. It seems to be way heavily favored that way.”

At Harrison Homes polling place in North Philly, just 103 in-person voters had visited by 12:30 p.m. In the November presidential race, Judge of Elections Bertram Martin said, the PHA facility saw 450 in-person votes.

“This is an extra slow day” said Yvette Holland, 61, who’s been a poll worker at the Yorktown polling location for four years. “It’s because this is a primary election.”

Among those who did turn out, Holland said it seems like they’re just there to cast their vote for the DA primary. The judges, not so much.

The neighborhood around North 11th Street is no stranger to gun violence, and plenty of people in her community have relatives or friends who are incarcerated, per Holland — so they care who’s running the criminal justice system.

“Everybody’s getting shot around here for no reason,” she said. “So that’s the reason why most of them was coming out, they’re coming out for that.”

Harrison Homes poll worker Yvette Holland Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Voting for candidates who ‘fight for human rights’

West Philly poll workers — and the mostly elderly residents who came out to vote in-person — emphasized the importance of this election, despite the low turnout.

“As far as the judges are concerned, I don’t think people give that the weight that it really does carry,” said West, the election worker at Sharon Baptist. “They set the tone for the sentencing.”

Marion Parks, 56, was working the polls alongside West. She echoed the importance of judicial elections. “These are the people that throw your behind in jail,” she said. “We want to vote for our different judges so they can fight for human rights.”

The Democratic  race for district attorney, which pits challenger Carlos Vega against incumbent Larry Krasner, is unarguably the most high-profile on the Philadelphia ballot. In a city that has seven times as many registered Democrats as Republicans, the winner of the primary is all but guaranteed to clinch the role in the November general.

Over at Rhoads Elementary on Tuesday, 58-year-old voter Anthony Paige said he lives near a “drug house,” and doesn’t feel like the city has done enough to address the criminal activity there.

“To tell you the truth, I really don’t care for any of the [DA] candidates,” said Paige, who voted for Krasner in 2017. “Everything that’s happened in this city with the violence and everything… People are talking about it, but no action is being taken about it.”

Paige said he’s been disappointed with Krasner’s term. “But is Vega any better? No, I don’t think so.”

Krasner and Vega have engaged in a months-long public feud that, at times, appeared to go beyond politics. At the end of a televised NBC10 debate, Vega told Krasner he was the DA’s biggest nightmare.

“I’ve been living in your head a long time,” Vega was heard saying, before asking Krasner if he had security waiting outside the debate venue.

There’s also a stark difference in endorsements and support. Krasner, whose platform emphasizes criminal justice reform, continues to be backed by progressive groups inside and outside of the city, including Reclaim Philadelphia and controversial social activist Shaun King.

Vega, a former assistant district attorney who sued Krasner for age discrimination after he was fired, was endorsed by former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell and is vigorously backed by the Fraternal Order of Police. He’s running on a “tough on crime” platform and has accused Krasner of being too soft on bad guys.

Tuesday’s voters, though, said they’re tired of the bickering.

“I think there’s been a lot of mudslinging on both sides,” said elections judge West.

Dorothy Sims walked with a cane from Sharon Baptist after casting her in-person ballot, same as she did during the presidential election. The dedicated, 73-year-old voter, who worked to get out the vote in November, said she’s just ready for this election cycle to end.

“I can’t wait until this is all over. Everybody’s fighting against each other,” she said. “[They’re] supposed to be for the people.”

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Layla A. Jones

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...