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Philly city commissioners race 2019: Meet the 13 Democrats — 13! — who want to run elections

Thirteen Democrats want to run Philly’s elections. Here’s where they stand on the issues.

Candidates raise their hands in response to questions during a forum for Democratic city commissioner candidates on the University of Pennsylvania campus on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. Eight candidates participated in the debate, which was hosted by Penn Democrats, Committee of Seventy, and the League of Women Voters of Philadelphia. From left: Marwan Kreidie, Luigi Borda, Kahlil Williams, Lisa Deeley, Dennis Lee, Moira Bohannon, Jen Devor, and Omar Sabir.
Candidates raise their hands in response to questions during a forum for Democratic city commissioner candidates on the University of Pennsylvania campus on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. Eight candidates participated in the debate, which was hosted by Penn Democrats, Committee of Seventy, and the League of Women Voters of Philadelphia. From left: Marwan Kreidie, Luigi Borda, Kahlil Williams, Lisa Deeley, Dennis Lee, Moira Bohannon, Jen Devor, and Omar Sabir.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

A lot of people want to run Philly’s elections.

In this year’s primary, 14 candidates are vying to be the city’s top elections officials — the largest field in 36 years. All that interest is due in part to increased attention on election and voting issues, an open seat for a job that pays more than $130,000 a year, and recent controversies regarding the office and its operation.

All three Philadelphia city commissioner seats are up for election. One incumbent Democrat is among the 13 running, while the other is retiring. Incumbent Republican Al Schmidt is unopposed.

All the competition is on the Democratic side. By law no party can occupy more than two seats, and in heavily Democratic Philadelphia the two primary winners are almost certain to prevail in November. Schmidt will face any independent or third-party candidates in November for the third seat.

It’s the second-highest number of candidates in the office’s history, tied with 1983 at 14 candidates (11 Democrats, 3 Republicans) and second to 1979 (24 Democrats, 3 Republicans), in the fallout from the effort to recall Mayor Frank L. Rizzo.

To learn more about the candidates, The Inquirer sent questionnaires to all 13 Democrats, receiving responses from 10 of them. (Robin Trent, Warren Bloom, and Annette Thompson did not respond.) The Inquirer also moderated a forum at which eight of the candidates appeared, examined voting histories and campaign-finance records and other public records, and searched candidates’ social-media feeds and websites.

Voting histories

Here is each candidate’s voting history since the May 2006 primary election, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of State. Moira Bohannon registered in Philadelphia in August 2012, and Kahlil Williams in March 2017, so they do not have vote histories prior to those dates.

How they see the state of elections today

The candidates largely agree on proposals to change how the city’s elections are run, but not on various election-related issues. For example, the two candidates endorsed by the city Democratic Party disagree on whether voter fraud is a problem, with Lisa Deeley saying that for the most part it isn’t and Omar Sabir seeing it as an important threat.

Similarly, Williams believes voter registration deadlines are not much of a threat to elections, while Luigi Borda rated them a top threat.

Where they stand on the issues

Across the country, attempts at electoral reform generally split along partisan lines, with Republicans often focusing on security concerns such as preventing voter fraud — which has been virtually nonexistent — and Democrats focusing on expanding access to the vote.

In recent years especially, Democrats have gotten behind a number of proposals aimed at lowering barriers to registration and casting a ballot. In Pennsylvania, state election law is specific and restrictive, and elections largely continue to run as they have for decades.

So while around two in five voters nationwide today vote by some method other than at the polls — thanks to changes such as expanded voting by mail — in Pennsylvania the vast majority of ballots are cast on Election Day.

Reflecting the nature of the Democratic primary, the candidates at the forum almost unanimously supported a number of proposals, including:

  1. in-person early voting so voters can vote prior to Tuesday of Election Day

  2. no-excuse absentee voting so voters can request mail-in ballots without having to provide a reason

  3. automatic registration so eligible voters are automatically registered at PennDot and other agencies

  4. open primary elections so voters do not need to be registered with a party to vote in its primary

  5. same-day registration so eligible new voters can register on Election Day and cast a ballot

  6. ranked-choice voting in which voters assign candidates as their first-place pick, second-place, etc.

  7. allowing people to vote while in prison

  8. randomizing the position of candidates on the ballot

In addition, all the candidates but Deeley said they support making Election Day a holiday, all but Williams said they support lowering the voting age, and only Borda said he supports compulsory voting.

No candidates said they support moving to 100 percent vote by mail.

All candidates said they would be willing to take less than the $131,000 paid to current commissioners. (One of the commissioners, elected as chair, makes more.)

Their priorities

Given the large number of proposals they support, and their many plans for how to improve Philly’s elections, The Inquirer asked candidates at the forum what their top priority will be if elected.

Marwan Kreidie: Voter turnout, trust in commissioners’ office, voting machines.

Luigi Borda: Civic education in schools.

Kahlil Williams: Voter registration and protecting the 2020 election.

Lisa Deeley left the event early.

Dennis Lee: Integrity training for staff and poll workers.

Moira Bohannon: Website overhaul, including information on registration, absentee ballots, voting logistics, accessibility, and multiple languages.

Jen Devor: Election Day administration, including filling poll-worker vacancies.

Omar Sabir: Community outreach and voter turnout.

What they would do in their first year

In The Inquirer questionnaire, the candidates were asked to name one concrete action they would take within their first year.

Jen Devor:

I want to create a smoother Election Day experience by filling all open Election Board seats. We will advertise the opportunities & make it easier to participate. College & high school students, plus anyone who wants to be civically engaged will be targeted with coordinated outreach campaigns. I would also create a more hands-on training experience. Workers will practice checking-in voters through role-play, experience the machines & fully understand the ADA-compliant accessories. Poll workers will be informed about accessibility challenges at their polling place & given info to help troubleshoot FAQs. There will be customer service training with shared best practices. At the end of the training, participants will receive a self-graded quiz to be used as a mechanism to confirm that the information was absorbed. With an outreach strategy & better trainings not only will we keep these positions full, but we will also create a smoother & more welcoming experience for all voters.

Marwan Kreidie:

One of my first actions as Commissioner will be to publish a nonpartisan Voters’ Guide for every Philadelphia primary and general election. This guide would contain candidate information, ballot initiative explanations, and polling location information. This guide would be available digitally and mailed to every registered voter in the city. Voter education is one of the most basic duties of the City Commissioner and yet is one of the things that is most sorely lacking.

Carla Cain:

Conduct demonstrations in communities to teach election board workers and voters how to use the new machines.

Luigi Borda:

I would hire a Deputy Commissioner that is a proven field operative for the non-partisan task of increasing turnout. We will develop a specific turnout prescription for each Ward based on Jonathan Tannen’s Turnout Funnel. (I was Jonathan’s 9th grade Social Studies teacher) This funnel looks at voter turnout and citizens that aren’t registered and classifies each individual into one of four categories. Is it turning out presidential voters that don’t vote in midterms? Is it registering the high amount of unregistered citizens? Is it turning out registered voters that don’t vote? The fourth category are strong voters, they don’t need my immediate attention. I will communicate this information to each Ward Leader and Committee Member in the city. I will also seek to immediately develop a Voter Turnout Division of five employees that would only work on voter registration and turnout year round, in partnership with Ward Leaders, Committee Members, stakeholders, and volunteers.

Dennis Lee:

Town Hall meetings through out the city to find out from the people how we can improve the voting experience.

Lewis Harris Jr.:

Polling Oversight it would encompass re-educating staff both within the various offices of the City Commissioners, and with the Election Board holistically

Kahlil Williams:

I’ll give three:
- I will convene at least five public meetings in parts of the City other than where the Commissioners meetings typically occur (Delaware & Spring Garden or City Hall).
- I will ask the City Solicitor for an opinion on whether the Commissioners can, without state legislative change, implement randomized ballot positions for municipal elections (my reading of the Election Code suggests that they can).
- I will contact each county board of elections in Pennsylvania to request their support in pushing common-sense election reforms (e.g., no-excuse absentee ballots, same day registration, early voting) at the state level.

Lisa Deeley:

We have to prepare for the 2020 presidential election. This means completing procurement of the new voting machines and training poll workers on them. This May we are also pioneering a student poll worker training program — both to create a pipeline for future poll workers and also to provide hands-on expertise from a younger, more tech-savvy generation.
At the same time, we’ve rolled out a new web based campaign finance system with the Ethics Board to make it easier to file campaign finance reports and to increase transparency. And we need to continue our education and outreach efforts so that all communities in Philadelphia understand the importance of voting.
I would also like to move the meetings of the County Board of Elections to the CITYStat room in the MSB so that they can be televised on our government access channel, or work to have the meetings live streamed to our website.

Moira Bohannon:

I want to improve communication from the office so that when a Philadelphian hears “City Commissioner,” their first question isn’t “what is that?” Step one is to audit, and improve, the website so that the office is providing clear, concise information, in languages that reach the most Philadelphians, in the most effective way. Step two is to disseminate information from the office to Philadelphians who are not going online.

Omar Sabir:

For the first 90 days, I would have intense strategic community outreach for committee people, poll workers, and the public at large on how to use the new voting machines. This includes educating people on voting rights, reviewing logistical challenges, and recruiting more poll workers. I would also seek to televise our weekly Commissioner Meetings on our official website, develop a mobile app for the Commissioner’s Office, and hire an effective team who can execute a safe and seamless election cycle process for 2020.