Voter turnout was, well, light

Posted: November 07, 2007

At the close of Michael Nutter's campaign, the now-mayor-elect was urging people to vote, not just for him but to send a message to President Bush and to help elect Democrats as judges.

Nutter's theme: It's not over.

Most voters weren't listening.

Seven of 10 registered voters in the city skipped a trip to the polls yesterday, treating the mayor's race as an issue settled in the May Democratic primary when Nutter bested four rivals.

With more than 96 percent of the divisions reporting late last night, only 28.7 percent of the city's registered voters cast ballots.

The race was so lopsided, the Associated Press proclaimed Nutter the victor just 34 minutes after the polls closed last night, with 1 percent of the vote counted. That has to be a record.

Here's another one: While Nutter's margin of victory was huge, voter turnout for his election was the lowest for a mayor's race without an incumbent since the city's Home Rule Charter was approved in 1951.

The peak turnout of registered voters was 36 years ago, when Democrat Frank Rizzo defeated Republican W. Thacher Longstreth in an open race that drew 76.6 percent.

Gov. Rendell's first successful election as mayor turned out 56.5 percent of the city's voters. Mayor Street's close race against Republican Sam Katz in 1999 drew a 44.5 percent voter turnout.

Any comparison of current voter turnout to past elections should take note of the federal "Motor-Voter" law passed in 1993, according to Christopher Sheridan, director of voting rights and election reform for the Committee of Seventy. That law required states to offer voter-registration information to drivers applying for licenses. From May 1995 through November 1999, Philadelphia added 169,092 registered voters even as the city's population fell.

Will low voter turnout impact Nutter's first term as mayor?

Randall Miller, a history professor at Saint Joseph's University who studies politics, said turnout doesn't mean that much in the general election because voters gravitated to Nutter in the primary based on key issues like government reform and crime.

"I think you could make the case that people were not necessarily voting for the man, but they were voting for the ideas and that he could be the person to implement them," Miller said. "That's a kind of a mandate." *

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