Election apathy a hard one to figure

In one moment last week, I saw both the gloomy downside and the percolating potential of Philadelphia politics.

In the last month, WHYY and Newsworks.org, our new Web site for news and dialogue, co-sponsored a series of voter forums on the Eighth City Council District election. (The other sponsors are the Committee of Seventy, G-Town Radio and Germantown Community Connection.)

That district covers much of the city’s Northwest. Its Council representative for the last 16 years, an inert lump named Donna Reed Miller, is retiring. So there’s an open seat, with seven candidates vying to replace her.

NewsWorks has a special focus on Northwest Philly, so we’re trying to cover this election as though it were the race for the White House.

The voter sessions were part of that. At these forums, we asked voters what qualities they sought in their new Council person, what issues they cared about most. Participants generated questioned to be asked at a debate April 27 at First Presbyterian Church in Germantown.

Those who showed up seemed to love it. The rooms were abuzz.

But not that many showed up. Turnout was less than half what I expected. In talking to civic leaders in the Eighth, they told us they’re seeing the same thing: a surprising apathy about this election.

Tuesday night in Mount Airy, Jerry Brown, a young man from Ogontz, buttonholed me. Jerry is so into this election he came to all three voter sessions. He told me:

“I talked to 10 people trying to get them to come tonight. They all said, ‘What difference would it make?’ I’d say how much this election matters, and how great these forums are. And they’d look at me and say, ‘Jerry, you’re young. Some day you’ll get it. It’s all rigged.’”

Cynicism, I understand, is just the voice of disappointed idealism. And to follow Philadelphia politics is to be disappointed, often. But cynicism is also the king of self-fulfilling prophecies.   It’s a way to pretend you don’t care, an alibi for not putting your feet, your wallet, your head behind your caring.

For God’s sake, people, look at Egypt. Don’t tell me change is impossible.

Nobody is asking you to risk your life in Tahrir Square.

Just pay some attention to an election that will have a real impact on whether we get a City Hall worthy of this great, but wounded city. Just show up for a candidates’ night or a debate. Just read the papers or NewsWorks.

If you don’t do your part as citizens, you have no right to expect the people you allow to be elected to do their part for you.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.