To get young Philadelphians to vote is to fight against apathy

    Last Friday Josh McNeil suggested that young adults didn’t vote in the May 21 primary because none of the candidates “offered a shot at meaningful change.” The real reason: Most young people didn’t know an election was even taking place.

    The folllowing is a work of opinion submitted by the author.

    Last Friday Josh McNeil, the chair of Young Involved Philadelphia, posed a question that has plagued this city for years: Why don’t young people vote in local primaries?

    Specifically, he asked why young adults, those aged 20-34, did not vote in last Tuesday’s local primary.

    In case you missed it, an abysmal nine percent of Philadelphia voters showed up at the polls. Alan Butkovitz won the democratic primary for city controller, our supposed “fiscal watchdog,” with 38,252 votes. Since the chances that a Republican would win anything in this city, let alone unseat Butkovitz, is about as likely as Donovan McNabb returning to win the Eagles a Super Bowl, it is safe to say that Butkovitz locked up another term with 3.2 percent of the city’s eligible voters’ support.

    These statistics are maddening when you consider that Philadelphians aged 20 to 34 make up 26 percent of the population. As Mr. McNeil pointed out, young people should be dominating local elections.

    Yet where Mr. McNeil falters is his analysis of why we young adults are not voting. Mr. McNeil believes that young adults did not vote in the primary because they coherently assessed the three Democratic controller candidates: Butkovitz, Brett Mandel, and Mark Zecca, and decided staying at home would be better than voting because neither candidate “offered a shot at meaningful change.”

    ‘I don’t know, and I don’t care.’

    Although I’m flattered by how highly Mr. McNeil thinks of my generation, the real reason young adults did not vote is because most of them were simply unaware an election was even taking place. In my three years living in Philadelphia I have noticed that my peers give elections, much like litter, crime, and graffiti, the old Philly shrug.

    I volunteered numerous hours making phone calls and knocking on Center City and South Philly doors for Brett Mandel’s campaign. The overwhelming majority of people I spoke to had no idea there was even a primary on May 21, let alone who the candidates were.

    Even worse, I ran into a 32-year-old man on South Street on Election Day who told me that although property taxes were his chief concern after recently purchasing property in the city, he was not going to vote. I told him about the election and did my best to sell him on why he should go vote for Mandel. To my shock, he did not know what the City Controller did and would not believe me when I told him how important the office was for his finances as a property owner in Philadelphia.

    I encountered countless other instances of ignorance, apathy, and laziness as I knocked on doors that day. At no point did I meet anyone who said, “I analyzed the candidates and they were just too boring, old, and white for me, so I’m not going to vote.” What I saw was a widespread lack of education about the electoral process and the positions at stake.

    More than diversity

    I love what Mr. McNeil and YIP are doing for this city. The city controller debate YIP co-hosted with WHYY was quite entertaining. But YIP should focus on educating young Philadelphians about why the election is important to them, rather than focusing on the color of the candidate’s skin.

    Perhaps most alarming about Mr. McNeil’s column is that he blamed the poor voter turnout on the fact that “Our options were three veterans of that office, all straight white men over the age of 40, and they were presented on voting machines that appear to be significantly older than we are.”

    Mr. McNeil argues that unless a candidate sounds and looks like us, we will not vote for them. Dismissing a lack of civic engagement because of the candidates’ race is irresponsible for someone in Mr. McNeil’s position.

    Furthermore, what exactly does sounding and looking like us mean? Is he really trying to advocate not voting at all if the candidates are white men? Has Mr. McNeil abstained from voting in every presidential election that did not involve Barrack Obama?

    If Mr. McNeil is so concerned with diversity, how does he reconcile the fact that Philadelphia is 62 percent African American, Asian, and Hispanic, while only three of the 15 YIP board members are non-white.

    Still work to be done

    The answer to Mr. McNeil’s ultimate question as to why young voters did not vote is pure unawareness of the issues, candidates, and electoral process. Had the three City Controller candidates been completely diverse, without a single white, male candidate I am willing to bet anything that voter turnout would still have hovered around 10 percent.

    I am also willing to bet Mr. McNeil that unless YIP and other similar organizations do something to educate and rally voters that the turnout for November’s District Attorney race, featuring African-American Democrat Seth Williams and Puerto Rican/El Salvadorian Republican Danny Alvarez will still fail to draw significant numbers.

    So what can be done?

    Let’s start a Political Action Committee geared at rallying those 26 percent of young voters to push back against the giant Philadelphia political establishment. Let’s fight the pay-for-play politics and weaken the stranglehold that Democratic ward leaders have on this city. Let’s educate the city on the various elected positions in local government so diverse people will understand why it is important for them to step up and run for office. If Mr. McNeil wants, I’ll even run it.

    YIP has the power to change this city, but only if we attack apathy for what it is. Young adults did not boycott the polls last Tuesday because they wanted to send a message to the three old white men running. They were simply unaware or lazy. In fact, most people probably still don’t know we had an election last Tuesday.

    Steve Silver is a Millenial Center City resident and 2013 graduate of the Temple University Beasley School of Law.

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