Four years ago, I ran for Democratic committeeperson in the 18th Ward to empower my neighbors to vote in every election and promote transparency in Philadelphia politics and the ward structure that supports it. The rules and norms used in our wards have historically been archaic, exclusionary, and unfair, disenfranchising the committeepeople who are elected to represent their constituents within the party. In the 18th, however, I was proud of the progress we made toward becoming an open ward which mandates that procedures are clear, finances are transparent, and committeepeople can fully participate in the endorsement process. Our ward committee instituted online voting for endorsements, ballot measures, and vacancies where you could submit your preferences over a multiple-week period and introduced ranked choice voting to ensure maximum participation by all members. We did so in an effort to be open, transparent, and fair.
That’s why I was shocked and outraged when the 18th Ward leader decided to abandon these principles and revert back to business as usual. On May 26, committeepeople were notified during a virtual meeting that there would be no further general business meetings this summer. On Wednesday, however, a handful of 18th Ward committeepeople were notified by letter that our ward leader was retiring and calling for a vote on her replacement with less than six-days notice.
Our established precedent of counting every vote and efforts to ensure the health and safety of our members were unceremoniously discarded in favor of requiring that members attend in person to cast a ballot. Without any reasonable notice, there is no time for candidates to come forward to state their case or even make sure that they can attend at all. Despite the fact that numerous committeepeople will miss the meeting due to work, caring for children, or travel, the ward leader has refused to make any reasonable accommodations. This bait and switch is completely antithetical to our work as committeepeople and members of the Democratic Party. It is unethical and disturbing.
Ward elections may seem like some local neighborhood politics, but they have real consequences. In 2018, just five ward leaders were responsible for selecting the state representative for the 175th District, after the incumbent, running unopposed in the general election, withdrew his name from the ballot after winning the primary. The concentration of power in a few people in choosing our elected officials in government never ends well. The most important duty of democratically elected committeepeople is to vet and endorse candidates who we believe will best represent the interests and values of those who elected us. Our job is to empower everyone in our community, not only the well-connected.
Meanwhile, brave Democratic legislators in Texas are fighting under threat of arrest against a bill that would roll back access to the ballot for countless voters and impede an open and free democratic process. Here in Philadelphia, some Democratic Party leaders continue to flaunt their ability to circumvent the will of the voters. Some ward leaders will go to great lengths to retain power and shape the outcome of board elections. Once, to prevent his committeepeople from voting, a ward leader was elected on a moving rental bus.
The ward system would be best served as a collection of hyper-local “laboratories of democracy,” but the majority of wards are “closed,” where ward leaders unilaterally make endorsements on behalf of the ward without any input from elected committeepeople, not to mention the voters they represent. Even when a ward is “open,” we have seen the party rules weaponized (or ignored entirely) to the advantage of those who wish to retain control and shut out other voices.
Hushed and rushed ward elections that disenfranchise the voters and their democratically elected committeepeople can no longer be the status quo. I hope that our party leadership, many of whom are elected officials, will take this opportunity to strongly condemn this sort of behavior and move decisively toward revising the party rules to promote inclusion, fairness, and transparency. As we look toward the future of politics and civic engagement in Philadelphia, we must find the political will to protect the new norms that have given voices to our many.
Jack Inacker, a graduate of the master of public policy program at Temple University, is a veteran, father, and Democratic committeeperson in the 18th Ward. @jackinacker