Dry run of voter ID law, get out the vote efforts
Candidates, their campaign staffs, and city officials, were bracing for a particularly difficult Election Day today as Pennsylvania voters head to the polls to cast their vote in the spring primary.
“It’s an unusually complex environment,” said City Commissioner Stephanie Singer. “I think there is going to be a lot of scrutiny of this election.”
In addition to the typical challenges voters face — which candidate to choose — voters in this primary also have to deal with the “soft roll out” of the state’s new voter ID law.
Though the law does not go into effect until the Nov. 6 election, poll workers will be asking voters for a photo ID this time in an effort to get a handle on how many lack the identification required for the fall.
“This is just a dry run,” Singer said. “You will do nothing differently.”
But, the change has everyone from candidates to volunteers paying a little more attention.
“You are going to make this happen,” Damon K. Roberts, a candidate for the state House, told volunteers at a training session for polling place volunteers Monday morning at his Dickinson Street office. “Victory needs to be on your face.”
It was crunch time and similar scenes were playing out all over the city and state. Every seat in the state House is up for grabs, as are half the seats in the state Senate.
In addition, Pennsylvania voters will choose their party’s candidates for president, U.S. senator and representative, state attorney general, treasurer and auditor general. In Philadelphia, which is overwhelmingly made up of Democratic voters, the primary often determines who ultimately wins in the general election.
Roberts is locked in a tough contest with former Youth Commissioner Jordan Harris for the 186th Legislative District, who is widely viewed as the favorite, and Timothy Hannah, a long-time community activist.
The race for the 186th is a prime example of the situation city voters face as they head to the polls. Though there is no incumbent in the race, Harris, who was endorsed by The Tribune Sunday, has the backing of the Democratic establishment — including city Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who held the 186th seat until January, and state Sen. Anthony Williams. Roberts has run for state representative and City Council before.
In addition, voters in the district will be asked to choose someone to fill the remainder of Johnson’s term in the state House. The Democrat there is Harold James, who held the seat for decades before retiring in 2008, paving the way for Johnson’s win.
The race in the 186th is just one of several hotly contested races across the city. In other races to watch include the 188th District, which pits incumbent state Rep. James Roebuck against newcomer Fatimah Muhammad. The campaign has taken on a negative tone with a political action committee attacking Roebuck, who has the support of the teachers’ union, for his stance on public education. Muhammad told The Tribune the attack had nothing to do with her campaign, adding that she supports vouchers in principle, but does not endorse the proposal now in the House.
In the 197th District, Jewel Williams, daughter of former state Rep., now Sheriff Jewell Williams is seeking her father’s seat in Harrisburg. She faces several contenders in the race: J. Miranda, Kenneth Walker and Jamil Ali. Opponents have accused to Williams of fostering confusion among voters in an effort to get them to vote for her thinking they are voting for her father. Voters here will also be asked to pick someone to fill the remainder of Jewell Williams’ seat. The choice there is between ward leader Gary Williams or perennial candidate T. Milton Street, brother of former Mayor John Street, who once served in the state House and has since served time for tax evasion.
Eighteen-year incumbent state Rep. Rosita Youngblood faces two challengers this primary season: Malik Boyd and Charisma Presley. The development at Chelten Plaza, which sparked a neighborhood controversy, had divided constituents. Youngblood opposed the project after the developer altered plans to build at Super Fresh there. Boyd backed the change, which brought a Sav-A-Lot to the plaza along with a dollar store, saying they were more in line with what the district needed.
Despite the hype, and the new voter ID law, voter turnout is expected to be low — perhaps lower than usual because of voter confusion about the state’s new voter ID law.
Voter turnout in primary elections in non-presidential years is typically low.
Singer said she’s not sure what this year’s turnout will look like.
“I have been surprised at how much anger there is over the voter ID law,” she said, adding that she hoped that anger would translate in votes. “The best way to beat this is for Philadelphians to come out and vote.”
Most expect the confusion that surrounds the new law and traditional voter apathy to reduce turn out.
“Voting here and around the country is embarrassingly low,” said Zack Stalberg, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, an elections watchdog group.
Both declined to give estimates.
There were slightly more than 1 million registered voters in the 2011 primary — 797,762 Democrats and 127,165 Republicans with 90,000 others. But, only 17.6 percent of the registered voters turned out in the 2011 primary.
Roberts was well aware of the statistics and told his volunteers the contest is likely to be close — urging them to get their friends and neighbors to vote.
“This might come down to five or 10 votes,” he said.
Stirring voters’ passions can be difficult.
Roberts portrays himself as a community crusader battling the city’s political machine.
“Some people just go along with the agenda,” he said, getting his volunteers fired up.
But, he also made sure they knew he was a Democrat, telling the group that the Republicans who control Harrisburg have a “radical right agenda.”
He used education as an example — honing in on vouchers — a hot button issue in this election cycle, in part because the political action committee Students First has poured tens of thousands of dollars into several races in south, southwest and west Philadelphia.
“If they destroy our public schools, where are our kids going to go?” asked Roberts.
In one corner, Kevin Parks had been listening as he inserted flyers into packets that would go to every polling place volunteer in the district.
As Roberts talked, Parks had difficulty containing himself.
“The private schools can turn out the kids,” he said loudly, shaking his head.
With every seat in the state House up for grabs and voter turnout expected to be low, candidates rely on grassroots enthusiasm.
“You are going to make it happen,” Roberts told his people.
He hopes to have between 160 and 200 volunteers at polling places across the district. Some of those will be the volunteers that stand outside the polling places. Some will be poll watchers, who must be certified to stand inside the polling place.
City officials will be watching closely this year.
“We understand that there may be some confusion this year with the new voter ID law that is now in place,” said District Attorney Seth Williams. “We want to make sure that no one is discouraged about going to the polls … because of that confusion.”
He promised that his office would “go after any criminal activity and prosecute it to the fullest extent of the law.”