Al Schmidt’s resignation from the City Commissioners Office to serve as my successor as CEO of the Committee of Seventy is a major boost to the organization’s century-long campaign to advocate for better government in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.

Schmidt proved himself to be a strong and effective administrator as one of three city commissioners — two from the majority political party and one from a minority party — who serve as Philadelphia’s own local election agency. During his tenure, he increased efficiency and transparency in the commissioner’s office. He also proved to be a leader of uncommon courage, repeatedly speaking truth to the most powerful person in the world during the crucible of the 2020 presidential election.

But his departure leaves an unusually critical vacancy in Philadelphia city government. Running elections in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania has never been more challenging.

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Well over two million general election voters in 2020 took advantage of Pennsylvania’s bipartisan authorization of expanded mail-in voting in 2019. This change meant that local election officials were running two different elections at the same time: the traditional election at the polling place, and essentially a giant mail processing operation. Officials in Philadelphia and elsewhere — including our thousands of poll workers — put forward heroic efforts in 2020 to execute those elections. New equipment, procedures, and training had to be deployed in a matter of a few months, a challenge compounded by a torrent of partisan lawsuits and the unexpected risks from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Add on requirements in the 2019 law that prevented efficient sorting and counting of mail votes, and vicious partisan attacks on election procedures, and the voting process was tested like never before. It’s no coincidence that roughly a third of election directors in our 67 counties have left their posts over the last two years.

Commonsense improvements could help, but partisan gridlock in Harrisburg has stymied urgently needed updates to election law and new resources for election officials. At the same time, virulent misinformation continues to pollute the atmosphere around basic election processes, and harassment, intimidation, and even death threats faced by local officials around the state now seems to be part of the job description.

In this context, experience and integrity matter in local and state election offices — perhaps now more than ever. There’s way too much at stake: the high-profile Senate and gubernatorial races in 2022, an open mayoral primary in 2023 and of course the 2024 presidential race not far behind. We need a steady, strong, experienced commissioner to work closely with incumbent Commissioners Lisa Deeley and Omar Sabir to make sure the job gets done well.

The City Charter gives Mayor Kenney the power to appoint an individual to fill the post, with eventual confirmation by City Council, but state law requires that this person not be a member of the majority party (i.e., not a Democrat).

Requiring bipartisan leadership in election oversight makes good sense, but the drafters of the 1937 Election Code could not have foreseen that attacks to the integrity of Pennsylvania’s elections would emanate from social media accounts and cable television from around the country — they likely saw those threats coming from a few trouble-making partisans at polling places. The fact that Schmidt could, like other Republican officials across the state and country, keep standing up to present the facts about what was — and was not — happening in local election offices was vitally important in 2020. And this will remain true for as long as lies about elections are peddled to Pennsylvanians.

Conditions may not be quite as dire as they were last year, but we are by no means out of the woods. Experience, integrity, and the confidence and ability to speak truth to power, to serve as a trusted messenger across the political spectrum, are essential qualities for the person who fills the minority-party commissioner’s seat through the next two years. The scrutiny and pressure on Philadelphia election operations will be intense, and we can afford no mistakes.

David Thornburgh is president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy.