BY TONY WEST/ Decline.
That is the chief picture to emerge from City Commission Vice Chair Al Schmidt’s 20-page report on the history of voting in Philadelphia. Turnout at the polls has been steadily slipping since the 1940s and ’50s.
This fact and many others are documented in Commissioner Schmidt’s report “Voter Registration and Voter Turnout in Philadelphia 1936 to 2013”. It is an array of charts and graphs that tell a precise story of this city’s voting life over generations, compiled from an archive of annual reports compiled from 1936 to 2004, and from the Commonwealth’s SURE system since then.
When Schmidt took a seat on the City Commission in 2012, he said, he “became aware of an incredible amount of information that was not publicly available in electronic format.” The City Commission had stopped even issuing a printed annual report.
Schmidt set his staff to working on mounds of dusty archives to produce this report.
In 1936, 94% of registered Philadelphia voters showed up at the polls to cast their vote for President (they preferred Franklin D. Roosevelt over Alf Landon by a 3-to-2 margin). By contrast, only 66% of registered voters actually voted in the 2012 presidential race.
It gets even worse in off-year elections. In 1950, 79% of registrants turned out for native son Richardson Dilworth’s (unsuccessful) try for the governorship. When another local hero, Ed Rendell, tried again in 1994 (and won), only 52% voted. The last gubernatorial election saw a paltry 41% turnout for an open seat which Tom Corbett won.
Mayoral politics? The same. Dilworth’s unsuccessful race against Republican Bernard Samuel in 1947 drew out 76% of the electorate. Back to the future: in 2011, only 20% cared to express themselves on the choice between Michael Nutter and Karen Brown.
In sleeper races like those for District Attorney and City Controller, the dropoff has been catastrophic. In 1937, 82% of registered voters cast their vote for those offices; last year, a meager 12% did so.
In the 1930s Philadelphia was a one-party town (Republican); by the 2000s it had again become a one-party town (Democrats). One might think interest would climb over time in primary elections. One would be wrong, though. In 1987, 67% of the electorate weighed in on Ed Rendell’s primary challenge to incumbent Mayor Wilson Goode. In 2011, only 11% showed up when Milton Street challenged incumbent Mayor Michael Nutter.
Last year’s primary election set a dismal new low-turnout record of 9%, despite a three-way race for Controller on the Democratic ballot.
Here’s the kicker: Voter registration is actually up! Rather, it has remained stable despite a dramatic drop in the city’s population. In other words, any given Philadelphian is much likelier to register to vote today than in the good old days.
In 1950, Philadelphia reached its peak population of 2,071,605. Only half of them, 1,059,585, were registered to vote. Sixty years later, the population had dropped by one-fourth, to 1,526,006; yet voter registration was up to 1,063,681.
So people register to vote more than ever. They just don’t vote.
The Commissioner’s study is good for more than handwringing. Students of elections will find it a mine of useful and intriguing information.
Some elections still pump more turnout than others. In 1992, voters, grumpy in the wake of a recession, turned out 73% for the race that turfed incumbent George H.W. Bush in favor of Bill Clinton. Eight fat years later, only 55% took an interest in who would replace him – Al Gore or George Bush. By 2008, a sour national sense of crisis and failure prompted 68% of voters to turn out for the John McCain-Barack Obama contest.
Gubernatorial turnout was high (70%) in 1978, when Republican Assistant US Attorney General Dick Thornburgh beat Democratic Pittsburgh Mayor Pete Flaherty. Crime was soaring in Philadelphia then, and Thornburgh, a no-nonsense crime-buster, polled very well in Philadelphia.
Genuine two-party contests favor a strong turnout at the municipal level. 1987 set a modern record of 71% turnout when former Mayor Frank Rizzo took on incumbent Mayor Wilson Goode after Goode’s aerial bombing of the MOVE house had left Philadelphia squirming in the national spotlight. Both men had fervent supporters and equally fervent foes and the race was close – 51-49%.
For District Attorney, a modern turnout peak of 38% was reached at the Democrats, by then dominant in the city, pulled out all stops to unseat incumbent Republican Ron Castille with Walter Phillips. Popular Castille held his own, pulling 190,176 votes. But Castille’s sights were set higher; he retired to campaign for State Supreme Court, where he now sits. Since his time, Republican DA candidates have struggled to win 40,000 votes, so the general election matters little.
Lively contests boost primary turnout. The 2008 cycle saw a close, heated race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination. Philadelphians voted in relative droves that spring (46%), the highest rate since 1991. That was the year DA Ed Rendell took the mayoral nomination with 49% of the vote in an exciting four-way race.
1992 saw a six-way Democratic presidential primary that sparked a 39% turnout. The same number was hit in 1994, when a mob of seven Democrats and five Republicans vied for the gubernatorial honors. When Rendell left City Hall in 1999, six Democrats duked it out to replace him, attracting 35% to the polls.
This current report is really just the short form. “We kept it at a high level, putting it together in a user-friendly way,” Schmidt explained. But the actual Excel file can generate election numbers down to the ward level for serious researchers.
The Schmidt report was prepared with the full approval of Commission Chair Anthony Clark, who called it “excellent work of historical significance.”
An electronic copy of the report can be obtained by contacting Schmidt’s office or by visiting his Facebook page, www.facebook.comcommissionerschmidt