The PGW building at Broad and Tasker serving as a polling location

Update: Philly District Attorney Larry Krasner cruised to a second term, while Republicans appeared victorious in all statewide judicial races, including the cash-heavy contest for Pa. Supreme Court. All of the city ballot questions easily passed.

Election Day got off to a slow start in Philadelphia for the November contest, which asked voters to choose the city’s next district attorney, controller, and a slew of judges in local and statewide positions.

With only two city officials on the ballot — one running unopposed, and the other banking on the 7-1 Democratic registration advantage — low turnout wouldn’t exactly be surprising. But there were more than 60,000 mail ballots returned by Philly voters, so in-person counts may not tell the whole story.

As usual, the blog Sixty Six Wards is keeping tabs. The algorithm predicts final turnout throughout the day by asking voters to submit their number at their polling place. When the polls closed, it looked possible that the city had hit 2017’s turnout. (Mail ballots are factored into the estimate.)

Still, the number of people showing up was lower than some expected.

At the polls inside the Fumo Family Library branch in deep South Philly, just 26 people had shown up to cast their ballots by 9 a.m. Gregory Quigley, the location’s judge of elections, said he’s used to seeing hundreds cast their ballots by that time — and this might be the lowest turnout he’s seen in a decade.

“More people should come to an election like this,” Quigley said, describing the effect judges can have on people’s lives. “When you get arrested, when you get divorced, when you get in a traffic accident, these are the people that are going to make decisions that actually affect your daily life.”

By 11:30 a.m., about 30 people had voted at the Second Nazareth Missionary Baptist Church in Point Breeze. Inside the PGW Building at Broad and Tasker, about 65 voters had come through before noon — 7% of those registered in the division — according to poll workers there. The division often sees close to a 90% turnout, they said, with at least 200 voters before noon.

By mid-afternoon, The Cedar Works Community Center in Cedar Park counted 55 voters. West Philly’s YMCA at 51st and Chestnut saw just 40 people come in to cast their ballots, and the Walnut Street Library had fewer still — with a total of 27 voters by 1 p.m.

“I would like to see more people come out to vote,” said Harry Bonivch, judge of elections at the Mastery Thomas Charter School polling place. Around 1 p.m., just over 30 people had voted in one of his divisions.

At the East Passyunk Community Center, Judge of Elections Susan Wierzbicki cited the pandemic. “COVID has definitely put a damper on people’s willingness to come out,” she said.

Sharawn Edwards, a poll worker at the West Philadelphia YMCA, said voting access and community violence are intertwined. “With the spike in gun violence lately, a lot of people are afraid to come out,” she said. “Getting a handle on gun violence would be helpful, so people can actually feel safe with coming out to vote.”

Quigley, at Fumo Library, hoped the low showing was an indication of more people voting by mail — rather than not voting at all.

Gregory Quigley, judge of elections at the Fumo Family Library polling location Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Philly sent out about 85k mail-in ballots for the May primary, which represents about 37% of the nearly 225,000 total votes cast. During last year’s presidential election, which happened during the height of the COVID crisis, about half of Philly’s 749,000 votes came in by mail.

A presidential, senatorial, or gubernatorial election brings a lot of voters to the polls. But recent odd-year elections in Philly saw engagement.

The 2019 election, which gave Mayor Jim Kenney a second term and included races for City Council seats, saw “record-breaking” turnout. Some of the lines at polling places were so long that people actually left before they could cast a ballot.

The 2017 general election also brought higher-than-expected turnout, with more Philadelphians electing District Attorney Larry Krasner to his first term than those who showed up for the competitive race that elected former DA Seth Williams.

Credit: Emily Neil / Billy Penn

‘People feel like they don’t have a say, but they do’

South Philly voter Concetta Seminara was frustrated to arrive at an empty polling place on Tuesday morning.

“I was somewhat disappointed to find that I was only the 15th person to vote today,” Seminara said. “It kind of scares me. The apathy is real. It’s so weird, because people in this neighborhood are very politically motivated. And yet, I don’t see the numbers.”

The 51-year-old said she was motivated to hit the polls by the city’s high crime rate.

Mark Bodnar, 64, said he came out cast a vote at the East Passyunk Community Center because he came of age during the Vietnam War, when a debate over changing the voting age from 21 to 18 made him conscious of its importance. “I definitely think my vote counts,” he said.

Mark Bodnar, a voter in South Philly Credit: Emily Neil / Billy Penn

Meanwhile, Nancy, a union supporter handing out a list of candidates outside the community center, said she actually thought turnout was “better than average.” She noted this is usually a lighter election, and said she was happy “people still make it a point to come out.”

At least one West Philly location reported pretty solid turnout (while acknowledging it normally has higher turnout than the rest of the city).

Outside the Mastery Thomas polling location, Democratic Committeeman Anthony DeFrancesco III said he grew up working the polls with his dad. He thinks people should participate in every election, because they all matter. “People feel like they don’t have a say,” he said, “but they do.”

Watching the day play out, Quigley, the judge of elections in South Philly, wondered if in-person voting would ever really return in Philly.

“I think this is a thing of the past, showing up at a voting poll. This is turning into something you stick in the mail,” Quigley said. “In five years, this is antiquated.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...