Philadelphia: Protecting the vote

As a mass transit strike threatened the outcome of an election, a community came together to reach the polling stations.

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    Philadelphia: Protecting the vote
    SEPTA trains in 30th Street Station [Ricardo Kuettel/Al Jazeera]

    Philadelphia, the United States - Diron Tucker, a 30-year-old security guard living in northwest Philadelphia, has been waking up at 4am lately. Not because he cannot sleep - but because his and his family's daily commute had been transformed into a nightmare.

    Tucker usually catches the bus to work but because of a mass transit strike that has gripped the city over the past week he has been walking to and from his job in downtown Philadelphia, a trip that takes him just under three hours. He leaves his house at 5am, works a 12-hour shift, and then walks another three hours home.

    "I have to get my kids to daycare and make sure my fiancee can get to work, then me. It's just crazy now we all gotta be up earlier," he says.

    He has been lucky to get four hours of sleep each night this past week, a balancing act that tested his and his family's limits. In the critical week leading up to election day, the city's Local 234 Transit Workers Union (TWU) went on strike. On November 1 their contract with the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit System (SEPTA), the company that manages all mass transit for the more than six million people in Philadelphia's metropolitan area, ended. In the early hours of November 7, only 24 hours before election day, most of Philadelphia's residents still did not know how they were going to get to the polls.

    'Half the city shuts down and it causes mayhem for those that don't drive [and] that take SEPTA,' one resident said [Ricardo Kuettel/Al Jazeera] 

    Disrupting the vote 

    The six-day transit strike that gripped Pennsylvania's largest city endangered far more than people's commute to work: It had the potential to affect the outcome of the tumultuous election battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

    Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are both hubs for Democrats, causing Pennsylvania, a key election battleground state, to swing Democratic in presidential elections since 1992. Philadelphia and its surrounding counties are by far the biggest Democratic stronghold in the state. But almost all of the other counties vote Republican, making it a tight race in each election cycle.

    Additionally, Pennsylvania is one of the most competitive states without early voting, making it even more critical for the state's residents to get to polls by November 8.

    READ MORE: Can Donald Trump sway women in suburban Philadelphia?

    In Philadelphia, the largest poor city in the United States, with a poverty rate of 12.9 percent, thousands depend on the public transport system to get anywhere. In the week after the strike took hold, the city ground to a screeching halt. The city's buses, trolleys, and subways provide approximately 900,000 rides every day.

    For some, regular commutes were transformed into gruelling journeys after the transit union's nearly 5,000 unionised employees walked off the job. For many Philadelphians, their biggest fear has been its potential political cost: handing the state to the Republicans - and potentially, a Trump presidency.

    Given Trump's electoral college map, he has few options to reach the winning threshold of 270 votes. But if Pennsylvania hands its 20 electoral votes to the Republican nominee, his path to the White House becomes significantly more feasible. Two days before the election, Trump held campaign events throughout the swing state. Earlier this week his wife, Melania, emerged on the campaign trail to give a speech in a Philadelphia suburb to try and rally crucial support.

    Many Philadelphia residents sympathised with the city's transit workers, who had been striking for better pensions and longer breaks in between routes and shifts, but they were frustrated with the timing that came on the brink of such an important election. And now, even with the strike over, some worry that the time they have missed at work due to the strike will make it harder to take off or leave early on Election day.

    "I can't leave early from work to go vote," said Tucker, who says he normally votes in each election. "I work downtown. I would have to miss work to vote and can't miss work with everything happening my kids and the new baby," he said. "I will be the only one working till my fiance goes back to work."

    Although they didn't officially comment on the crisis, the Clinton campaign was certainly aware of the havoc an election day transport strike could wreak on her presidential aspirations. Clinton - and the Obamas - campaigned in Philadelphia on the eve of the election, in a last-ditch effort to rally voters on-site. The Clinton campaign did not respond to requests for comment on the strike and its impact on their campaign strategy.

    SEPTA and the transport union finally came to a last-minute agreement just before rush hour on Monday morning in what some are calling Clinton's "first major victory" of the election, but full service is not yet up and running. But perhaps the most important part of the saga is how a city dubbed "the City of Brotherly Love" had lived up to its namesake in the wake of civic desperation. 

    One Passenger at the 69th Street SEPTA Station [Ricardo Kuettel/Al Jazeera] 

    Community comes together 

    Residents got creative, creating countless Facebook groups to organise car pools and bike shares. Elizabeth Gorman, 23, posted on a group entitled "SEPTA Strike Carpool Coordination", stating that she could help people get where they needed to go whether by car or by letting people borrow her bike. She wrote:

    "Hello, I have a car but work outside the city, willing to give rides in the early morning or late evenings! I also have a bike share membership that I want to share, all you need is my phone number to access a bike from any of the Indego stations. PM me for details!"

    Indego is the city's bike sharing programme. Taria Sumler, 30, who lives on the opposite side of the city from Elizabeth, responded asking for help. The two coordinated so that Taria could use Elizabeth's bike membership to get to school on time.

    "I'm willing to give people rides before work. I'm also part of the bike share programme in Philadelphia," said Gorman. "For a lot of people, [SEPTA] is their lifeline. It's how they go to school, how they become educated. They need that. I'm fortunate enough to not rely on it like that, but a lot of people are."

    Others tried to mobilise people in mass given the stakes.

    A Super PAC in California that supports Clinton funded a programme that will cover the cost of voters' Uber and Lyft rides to the polls - regardless of party affiliation. The group behind the programme, called My Ride To Vote, made a major push during the strike to get the word out to Philadelphia voters.

    Another group in Washington DC launched CarPool2Vote, an app that had paired volunteer drivers with voters trying to get to their polling place. While the app is available nationwide, it saw a particular jump in registered users in Philadelphia when the strike began.

    "If Philadelphia and the suburbs don't show up, we - Pennsylvanian - very quickly [will] become a red state ... if everybody else comes out to vote, outside of the city, and outside southeastern Pennsylvania," said Sheri Cole, 46, a volunteer driver for CarPool2Vote, who planned to dart all over the city, getting as many voters to the polls as she can.

    "Don't assume [voting] will just happen," Cole added. "Know how you're going to get there, and who's going to go with you and make sure your friends have a plan to vote."

    A photo showing Photo Hill Station [Ricardo Kuettel/Al Jazeera] 

    'Can do' energy

    As the clock ticked closer to Election Day, the city's leaders and institutions put their weight behind finding a solution. Before reaching the agreement on Monday, the city of Philadelphia filed for an injunction to temporarily stop the union workers' strike on election day. Representative Bob Brady, a Congressman representing Philadelphia and a former union man himself tried to help facilitate negotiations.

    Dwight Evans, a state representative and a heavily favoured candidate running for Congress also helped facilitate the final deal. On Sunday night, just hours before the agreement was passed, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf joined the fray, saying that he supported an injunction and would send a letter of support to the court.

    "I am pleased that SEPTA and TWU have reached an agreement and the city of Philadelphia's transit system will be fully operational within 24 hours. While I am beyond disappointed the situation ever resulted in a strike that affected the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians, I commend both sides for bringing this crippling work stoppage to an end. I especially thank Representative Dwight Evans for his tireless work to reach a resolution," Governor Wolf said in a statement Monday. "Now, these individuals can return to their normal daily commutes without the anxiety of disruption and the workers can return to their job and continue this important service for the people of Pennsylvania."

    Residents of the city have had to juggle a state of extreme frustration with a rush of "can do" energy that became a sort of rallying cry to get as many of their fellow citizens to the polls as possible. For a city that is considered by many to be more raw and rough-around-the-edges than its East Coast neighbours like New York or Washington DC, for many the tale has been one that epitomises Philadelphia.

    "In Philadelphia, community comes first, and people watch out for each other," Gorman said. "I think in general when things like this happen, people tend to come together more, but I feel like that's, you know, a lifelong thing in Philly. People come together, all the time."

    Follow Melanie Bavaria and Dorian Geiger on Twitter.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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