Philadelphia's mail ballots in a secure area at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Mail voting in Philly has declined significantly since it was first introduced, a Billy Penn analysis shows, but the popularity varies widely by neighborhood. 

Center City and Northwest Philadelphia voters were the most likely residents to cast mail ballots in last year’s general election, while North and Northeast Philly neighborhoods voted by mail at lower rates.

Of over a million registered voters in Philadelphia, nearly 95k (9%) requested a mail ballot for this year’s primary, per Pa. Department of State data. 

Among Democrats — who make up 76% of Philly’s voter base and have nine mayoral candidates to choose from this month — just over 10% of voters requested mail ballots. Nearly 35,000 of around 84,000 Democratic mail ballots had already been returned as of May 9.

No-excuses mail voting is a relatively new thing in Pennsylvania. It started in the May 2020 election, after the state legislature opted to legalize it in fall 2019. Its introduction just so happened to align with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and a presidential election year, so it was a popular option at first — especially in the November 2020 presidential election.

But as of last year, with fewer pandemic restrictions and fewer people sticking to their homes, it had gone way down. Just 25% opted to cast a mail ballot in November 2022, per City Commissioner data, compared to 51% in November 2020.

A lower number of requests is pretty much to be expected in this primary, as overall turnout is typically much lower in municipal primaries than in general elections with statewide races.

Around 23% of Philly voters showed up to the polls in May 2019, and 27% came to the polls in May 2015, the last time there was a heavily contested mayoral race. Compare that to 47% turnout in last year’s general election, when Pennsylvanians elected both a new governor and a new U.S. senator.

Looking at last November’s voter data, voting by mail seems to have stuck more so in Northwest Philly and in areas in and around Center City than it has elsewhere in Philly.

Some other relative hotspots for voting by mail included West Philly’s 52nd Ward — which includes Wynnefield and Parkside — and 46th Ward, which includes parts of Cedar Park, Spruce Hill, and Cobbs Creek.

Many of the wards where mail voting was more prevalent also had high turnout overall.

Mail ballots were most popular in the 8th Ward, the western part of Center City, where 39% of voters voted by mail in November. That ward had 55% turnout, 8 percentage points higher than the citywide rate. Included within the 8th Ward’s boundaries is City Hall, where voters could request, receive, and submit a mail ballot all at once, up until the week before the election.

In the 9th Ward — which includes Chestnut Hill and had 72% voter turnout, the most of anywhere in the city — 35% of voters cast a mail ballot, a relatively high proportion. 

Move the slider back and forth to see voter turnout (left) compared to mail ballot use (right). Visualization by Asha Prihar. Data from the Philadelphia City Commissioners.

On the flip side, many of the wards where voters overwhelmingly opted to cast ballots in person had lower turnout. For example, voting by mail was least popular in the 19th, which includes Fairhill and part of West Kensington, where overall turnout was 29% and just 13% of those voters cast a mail ballot.

The lowest turnout ward — North Philly’s 7th, where 24% of registered voters cast a ballot in November — saw 83% of those voters come to the polls in person and 14% voted by mail.

That pattern didn’t hold for every ward, though. The 66th Ward, located in Far Northeast Philly, had some of the highest voter turnout (55%) and one of the lowest rates of voting by mail (18%).

The 26th Ward, which includes Packer Park and Girard Estates, was in a similar position, with 57% turnout and 18% voting by mail.

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...