If you're an ordinary Philadelphia voter, you go to the polls once or twice a year and the experience is routine: the poll workers find your name among the registered voters, ask you to sign in and take you to a voting machine, where you duck under a curtain, push buttons for your candidates, open the curtain and go on about your business for the next six months.
If there's a single person to thank for that routine, it's someone that most Philadelphians never heard of – Robert Lee Jr., officially listed on the city payroll as "voter registration administrator," but unofficially, the guy who's been minding the nuts and bolts of the city election machinery since the 1980s.
Lee had bosses – the city commissioners, especially chairwoman Marge Tartaglione, the leader of the city commissioners since the mid-1970s, who lost her re-election bid last May. But it was Lee who handled the details of the city's transition from mechanical to digital voting machines and brought in a new imaging system to keep track of voter signatures, among other accomplishments.
"He was the blood and guts of that department," said a former colleague, Bill Rubin, now a City Council candidate.
Lee retired from the job last month, several weeks after reaching his 60th birthday. He'll collect a pension of close to $72,000 annually, but he's walking away from nearly $250,000 in potential deferred-retirement payments, after signing up for the DROP program just last year. It appears he's taken Tartaglione's defeat as a personal affront, he holds the media at least partially responsible, and he has no desire to continue the job under new bosses.
Lee refused to say anything about his departure to the reporters he has helped for years, explaining the intricacies of the election process, from voter registration through vote counts. "I'm a private citizen now," he told the Inquirer last week. "I don't have to talk to you."