In Northeast Philadelphia, changing demographics and diverse issues bring first-time voters to the polls - Generocity Philly

Purpose

Nov. 4, 2020 10:00 am

In Northeast Philadelphia, changing demographics and diverse issues bring first-time voters to the polls

Majority-white neighborhoods are populated by cops, contractors, teachers, and other government workers forced to live within city bounds. But priorities are slowly changing in Philadelphia’s forgotten borough.

The Muslim Youth Center on Knights Road.

(Photo by Brandon Dorfman)

[Editor’s note: All of those interviewed at the polls — including poll workers — either withheld their surnames or asked to remain anonymous.]

For all the talk of election day shenanigans here in Philadelphia, from truck caravans to partisan poll watchers to protestors and more, polling sites in the Republican stronghold neighborhoods of Northeast Philadelphia remained calm and serene.

Early morning crowds lined up around buildings dwindled to a steady drip of voters by 9 a.m. at ballot boxes from the Far Northeast to Holmesburg. One poll worker at Loesche Elementary School, located on Bustleton Avenue just on the edge of the city, described the day as anticlimactic.

That’s not to say the area’s churches, schools, and recreation centers turned laboratories of civic duty lacked excitement — it just came in dribs and drabs. When local Newsmax columnist A. Benjamin Mannes posted images of a Democratic ballot taped to the wall of The Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush to Twitter, a supposed polling violation, the news echoed throughout social media. The tweet, as Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s Office noted, was deliberately deceptive.

By 9 a.m., Generocity confirmed somebody removed the sign.

Far Northeast Philadelphia is a Republican island in an otherwise Democratic city whose only contribution to local politics was a half-baked idea to secede over 40 years ago. Home to City Council’s only district-wide Republican, Brian O’Neill, the majority-white neighborhoods are populated by cops, contractors, teachers, and other government workers forced to live within city bounds.

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But slowly, as demographics change, Election Day priorities become more diverse in Philadelphia’s forgotten borough.

Steve and Sharon, two millennial voters of Indian American descent, told Generocity on Tuesday that they cast their votes, hoping to make a difference.

“Just to see the change in our country,” said Sharon, when asked why she was voting on election day. Together, with Steve, Sharon cast her vote at George Washington High School in Northeast Philadelphia. “I just wanted to know what brings changes to our country in the future.”

Steve was a first-time voter, which he described as being nice. “It’s my right and I want to use it,” he said, adding that his priority in the 2020 election was rights for Christians and churches.

And though quiet was the call of the day at most polling sites Generocity visited, according to some workers stationed outside, what crowds there were skewed younger. One 27-year-old veteran poll worker at Pennypack Environmental Center off of Verree Road, who asked to remain anonymous, reported that this year’s presidential election saw an uptick in first-time voters. Like Steve, this poll worker noted that many new voters were eager to become involved in the electoral process.

“I have had a lot of first-time voters today, people who were definitely over the age of 18,” the masked poll worker at Pennypack said. “That was nice to see that people are getting involved.”

A few of the new voters were upwards of 25 to 30 years old, he continued, noting that, like others, Generocity interviewed on Tuesday, change was a primary motivating factor.

But change wasn’t the motivating factor for Northeast Philadelphia, nor was it the number one issue at Pennypack Environmental center either.

Heading back to his car, Pat, a white male with a long beard who appeared to be in his mid-30s, placed a newborn baby into the backseat of his car and spoke about the issue that was top of most voters minds this election — the president.

"I’m hoping that Trump wins."
Pat, at Pennypack

“Just that my vote gets counted and I’m hoping that Trump wins,” Pat said.

Four years ago, Pennsylvania was one of three tipping point states, along with Michigan and Wisconsin, to propel Donald Trump to his surprise victory over Hillary Clinton. Although he lost by over 3 million votes to his Democratic rival, the president eked out a win in the Electoral College, shocking, and in many cases angering, the electorate. Most polls this year show that the path to an Electoral College win is much tighter than the presumed popular vote.

Between early and election day voting and mail-in ballots, the country is on a path to see the highest voter turnout in decades, per most experts. And, as much of the media noted throughout the campaign, the election is a referendum on Donald Trump.

"I came out just to change the president."
Yusufu, at George Washington HS

Yusufu, a young African American man voting at George Washington High School, was succinct in his reasoning for exercising his civic right. He said that he voted against the president.

“Especially, I came out just to change the president,” Yusufu said. “The stuff he’s saying is ridiculous.”

But, even though Trump remained atop the minds of much of the electorate, the cause and effect of his administration hung throughout election day in Philadelphia. Masks and social distancing were the preferred attire on Tuesday, as poll workers from Torresdale to Holmesburg reported overall compliance with coronavirus rules from voters.

Since February, over 230,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. Fifty percent of cases and deaths are confined to African Americans in Philadelphia, making the adage that illness doesn’t discriminate seem empty to those communities. In an America where partisanship rules, even a deadly pandemic can’t escape the red-blue divide.

Although on Tuesday, Philadelphians chose safety over partisanship. At almost a dozen polling places in the Northeast section of the city, poll workers told similar stories — voters all wore their masks without complaint. At J.H. Brown Elementary School in Holmesburg, volunteers handed out masks to anyone in need of one.

“Due to social distancing, we could only keep a limited number of people in the building at one time,” the poll worker at Pennypack Environmental Center said. “It does make the line go a little slower, but people have been cooperative and pretty easy to go by.”

While no voters mentioned COVID-19 as a primary issue of note on Tuesday — there have been fewer clusters of the virus in Northeast Philadelphia than in other parts of the city — healthcare, in general, was a topic of conversation.

At Faith Lutheran Church in the Torresdale section of the city, one anonymous woman mentioned it was her primary reason for coming out on election day. “My husband is a nurse,” she said, noting that she was concerned about the system’s future. She made no mention of for whom she was voting.

In the end, most voters were guarded about their personal views, preferences, and predilections towards the issues.

"I don’t know (why I am voting)."
SEPTA driver, at Holmesburg Rec Center

Many of those willing to talk struggled to articulate their motivations, such as a young SEPTA driver, voting at Holmesburg Recreation Center during her break. Pausing for a moment when asked why she was voting, the young woman said, “I don’t know,” before walking away.

It was a common refrain throughout the day.

For those that did know, the answers were more steadfast. Jay, an African American man, was blunt when asked his reasons for coming out on election day.

“I just feel like it’s my responsibility to vote,” he said.

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