Philadelphia’s electorate has seen a lot. Voters were there for the elections held during World War I and the Great Flu of 1918 that ravaged the city. They made it through the Depression, and through World War II, the Cold War, and the 1960’s. Buried deep in the city’s archives are undoubtedly all the colorful and often-depressing stories of political skullduggery, partisan hackery, and incompetence the mind could imagine.
But as president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, Philadelphia’s advocate for better government and fair elections since 1904, I don’t know that we’ve seen anything like this current election season. The perfect storm of a white hot presidential election, a global pandemic, and a reeling economy takes our civic breath away.
This election season will test us all — individual voters, election officials, candidates, the news media, our core democratic systems — like nothing before. And after Tuesday’s political disgrace in Wisconsin, we know what political failure looks like: blocks-long lines of voters waiting in the cold rain and sleet, beleaguered election officials needlessly exposed to COVID-19, voters who followed the rules only to have their absentee ballots tossed to the curb.
It’s time to reaffirm and reinforce core expectations for our public leaders to get us through to November in good health.
1. Ditch partisan politics in favor of public health.
There is no room for partisanship in this crisis, and all of us have to stand ready to condemn any public officials who let partisan advantage stand in the way of keeping people, and our democracy, safe and sound.
2. Build on successes we’ve had so far
Governor Wolf and the General Assembly acted with bipartisan foresight last fall to make available new vote by mail options to Pennsylvania voters, and we strongly encourage our fellow citizens to visit VotesPA.com and sign up to vote by mail from the comfort of their home. A few weeks ago, our public leaders in Harrisburg again acted in a spirit of bipartisan cooperation to move the PA primary to June 2. We applaud them and thank them for their determination to do right by our voters and by our local democracy. That’s the way we should expect to do things here in Pennsylvania.
3. Support local election officials
We must also turn to our local election officials, the independently-elected City Commissioners in Philadelphia and the election directors in each of the suburban counties, who serve at the pleasure of the County Commissioners or County Council.
To say that Seventy has sometimes been critical of their past performance would be an understatement. But they serve on the frontline of our election systems. They are the first responders who manage the high-stakes, arcane, under-funded, often-neglected process of making our election machinery deliver for our democracy.
We are counting on them to deliver a safe, efficient primary election on June 2, and the same result on November 3. We want them to succeed, and commit to doing everything we can to help them deliver a great voter experience that makes us proud to be Pennsylvanians. Their success is truly our success.
But by the same token, if ever there were a time for vigilance and oversight, this is it. We can’t suffer the same ugly strains of partisanship and incompetence that infected Wisconsin this past Tuesday.
David Thornburgh is president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy.