Philly's voting history holds some surprises

Posted: January 16, 2014

WHEN YOU HEAR something about Philadelphia voter turnout, what comes to mind?

Dead people? Democratic abuse of the electoral process? Pitifully low numbers?

Yeah, I know.

But a close look at stats on city turnout from 1936 through 2013 released last week by City Commissioner Al Schmidt shows stuff beyond stereotypes.

Stay with me. Forget for a bit the old saws and have some fun with it.

Guess, for example, which presidential race garnered the highest turnout.

JFK in 1960? Barack Obama in 2008? Nope.

The high was in 1936 for FDR vs. Alf Landon: 94 percent. Imagine.

JFK drew 90 percent. Obama's first run 68 percent.

The lowest presidential turnout is something of a shocker: the 2000 razor-close race between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Philly weighed in at just 55 percent.

Don't shake your head. That was better than Pennsylvania (54.1 percent) and the nation (54.2 percent), according to data from George Mason University's U.S. Elections Project.

How about Philly's high/low for governor?

You're thinking the high was Ed Rendell in his first run in 2002, right?

Wrong. Turnout for the two-term mayor was 40 percent. He did better (45 percent) for his re-elect in 2006.

But the all-time high was in 1950 (79 percent) when Philly Democrat Richardson Dilworth lost to Republican John Fine.

Maybe registration rolls were cleaner then. Or maybe they weren't.

The low for governor was in 1998, when Democrat Ivan Itkin (who?) lost to incumbent Republican Tom Ridge. City turnout was 34 percent.

And for mayor?

High was 1971 when Frank Rizzo beat Thacher Longstreth: 77 percent.

Low was 2011, when Mayor Nutter trounced Karen Brown to win re-election: 20 percent.

Other stuff?

In the 1950s, Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the city by more than 400,000.

That started flipping in the 1960s and by 2010 Democrats outnumbered Republicans by nearly 700,000 - which is where it stands today.

State records show 1.03 million registered city voters. Democrats outnumber Republicans by 684,983; and there are 81,876 independents, 3,138 Libertarians and 21,229 "other" voters.

Schmidt tells me turnout data show "a pretty clear trend toward lower turnout despite voter-registration numbers remaining steady."

He also notes registration counts might not be entirely accurate since purges of inactive, deceased (there ya go!) or moved-out voters used to take place every two years and now occur only every seven years.

Still, the trend is evident.

Average turnout for presidential elections since 1936 is 76 percent. But the average for six presidential elections since the '90s is 63 percent.

Same with races for governor and mayor: Overall average is 60 percent for both. But since the '90s the average is 43 percent for governor, 40 percent for mayor.

Neal Caren, an associate sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, studied turnout in 38 big-city mayoral races from 1978 through 2003.

And guess what?

Philly is second only to Chicago in average mayoral turnout among all cities studied, and that includes other cities with more than 1 million voters.

New York's turnout was 29 percent, Houston's 28 percent and LA's 26 percent.

Caren says low numbers are "part of the general downward trend in participation" in all civic affairs.

He also notes most mayoral elections are not close (average victory margin during his study was 21.5 percent), there are few remaining urban-party organizations to get out the vote and some cities have a strong council government.

So lesson learned?

Philly doesn't do so badly compared with other big cities.

Just don't look at local turnout for district attorney and controller. It went from 82 percent in 1937, to 38 percent in 1989, to 12 percent in 2013.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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