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Committeepeople are the most important election officials you’ve never heard of

As a key date approaches, we are concerned that neither party is empowering our elected armies of committeepeople to do their jobs. Namely, help get out the vote.

Summer Nelson (left) signs Steve Paul’s (right) petition. Paul is running for committeeperson in his West Phila. neighborhood and was collecting petition signatures so he can get on the ballot for the primary. Steve was photographed on March 11, 2022.
Summer Nelson (left) signs Steve Paul’s (right) petition. Paul is running for committeeperson in his West Phila. neighborhood and was collecting petition signatures so he can get on the ballot for the primary. Steve was photographed on March 11, 2022.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

When Philadelphians cast ballots in the May 17 primary election, many also voted for the most important position they had never heard of: committeeperson.

Committeepeople are like political block captains and have been the foundation of the city’s major parties for generations. Today, the two primary duties of committeepeople are to share lists of endorsed candidates with their neighbors as they enter polling stations and get out the vote.

Roughly 3,000 people circulated petitions to get themselves onto the ballot as committeeperson candidates in the primary. With a total of 3,406 seats in each party across the city (two Democratic and two Republican per voting division, each spanning a few city blocks), not everyone won.

Committeepeople have the potential to become part of a mighty voter turnout apparatus, which reshapes our elections and ensures that every voice is heard. But their potential is being wasted, as neither party has empowered these armies of committeepeople to encourage people to vote.

» READ MORE: Lack of transparency in a tiny Fishtown election reveals bigger problems in Philly’s Democratic Party | Opinion

After the primary, the only way to see if we’ve made progress toward that potential will be noting that many of the city’s political wards are “open,” where committeepeople have an active role in the ward’s governance and decision making, especially as it relates to the coveted candidate endorsements distributed to voters. Generally, committeepeople in an open ward will be better supported and motivated to do the hard work — and it truly is work — of knocking on doors, talking with neighbors, and dropping flyers in the neighborhood. The end result is higher voter registration and turnout.

And how does a ward become open? Duly elected committeepeople will come together on Monday for what’s called a ward reorganization meeting, where committeepeople collectively elect the ward leader and other officers. This leadership, ideally, will be committed to the principles of open wards, and the advantages of small “d” democracy will be realized.

In closed wards, the meeting may not resemble an election at all, and committeepeople will not be able to democratically elect a ward leader. Indeed, we’ve heard that some in Philadelphia are concerned that not all committeepeople will get word of the meeting ahead of time, making it impossible for them to participate in these all-important elections.

In the 22nd Ward — covering parts of Mount Airy — friction between some committeepeople and the ward leader, 8th District City Councilmember Cindy Bass, led to the formation of an Open Ward Caucus that ran its own get-out-the-vote program and candidate endorsement process. Similar grassroots organizing has sprung up in Roxborough and Manayunk (Vote the Ridge), South Philly (South Philly United), and across Fishtown, Northern Liberties, and Port Richmond (River Wards Democrats).

Now the important question is: Will ward leadership elections on Monday be free and fair? Every duly elected committeeperson must have proper notice of the election, the rules of the election must be clear and broadly accepted, and no one should fear retribution or retaliation for their votes. At a time when free and fair elections in this country are no longer certain, we have to expect and demand that every election in our own town meet this standard.

“Now the important question is: Will ward leadership elections on Monday be free and fair?”

Steve Paul and Vanessa McGrath

A committeeperson can do good work for their neighbors regardless of how their ward functions. But committeepeople working together as part of an open ward — vetting and discussing candidates, sharing tools and resources, and supporting each other — can be far more effective in turning out the vote.

Imagine a vibrant and energetic coalition of party voters, committeepeople, and ward leaders inviting all voices and united in reaching voters in every house on every block. It would transform our traditionally insular and sclerotic politics, yielding better results not only in our own City Hall elections but ensuring that Philly punches its weight in statewide contests, where the stakes are higher than ever. Just think about what we can get done — if we do this right.

Steve Paul is a committeeperson in the 12th Ward and executive director of One PA. Vanessa McGrath is a committeeperson in the 5th Ward and a steering committee member of Open Wards Philly.

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