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Philly elections need a shot of 21st-century reforms

City elections disenfranchise too many, disengage everyone else, and lead to the disturbing conclusion that democracy, born and raised here in the home of Independence Hall, has grown into a listless, complacent, and passive middle-aged adult.

For the Committee of Seventy, Philadelphia's long-standing government reform advocate, election day is like Christmas Day and the Super Bowl rolled into one. It comes after a long season of working to help educate, inform, and engage voters about what we believe are the hugely significant choices we all make about who will lead us for the next four years.

This past primary election season, we partnered with 27 different civic leadership groups to produce 15 forums and events that drew more than 5,000 Philadelphians. Our heavily trafficked website drew 53,000 visitors in search of information on candidates and issues and on where and when to vote.

On election day itself, a veteran cadre of volunteers staffed our voter hotline from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and we mustered an additional 250 volunteers — including 200 high school students learning the process firsthand — to help voters at the polls.

So far, so good. Still, in my first year as Seventy's CEO, I couldn't help but feel let down after the polls closed and the puff of white smoke cleared the electoral chimney.


The way we vote harks back to the 19th century — and it belongs there. It disenfranchises too many, disengages everyone else, and leads to the disturbing conclusion that democracy, born and raised here in the home of Independence Hall, has grown into a listless, complacent, and passive middle-aged adult.

What's wrong with this picture? Well, look at Primary Day 2015.

Turnout was pretty grim. About 27 percent of registered voters came out May 19. The last contested Democratic primary for mayor in 2007 drew about 39 percent of registered voters. Barely one in four coming out to vote is just plain unacceptable, particularly here — where our experiment in democracy began — and now, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act. For more than two centuries, Americans have died to secure the right of all citizens to vote, and we should be ashamed that so few of us perform this basic act of citizenship.

Moreover, because of the skewed partisan registration in Philadelphia — Democrats outnumber Republicans by 7-1 — the 128,000 people who voted for Jim Kenney (1 in 8, or maybe 12 percent, of the 1.1 million registered) have likely chosen our next mayor. That just doesn't seem right.

But turnout is not the end of the story.

When it comes to primary voting, Philadelphia is different, and in this case being unique is not a good thing.

Unlike Philadelphia, 80 percent of the 50 largest cities in the United States use a nonpartisan system to elect candidates for local office. We don't — our primaries are closed airtight: Only Republicans can vote for Republicans, and Democrats for Democrats.

If you happen to be one of the 110,000 voters registered as independents, you might as well stay home on primary day because all you can do is vote on ballot questions. And given the lopsided registration, the 120,000 Republicans aren't much better off. Essentially, Philadelphia leaves 230,000 voters out of the process of choosing their mayor and at-large City Council members, and that doesn't seem right either.

For the voters who did participate, did they have good choices to make? During the campaign, did they see fresh faces, new ideas, and bold competing visions for the city and its future?

In the poorest big city in America, plagued by sluggish job growth, poor schools, and high taxes, it shouldn't be too much to ask for a few candidates ready to rock the system. Instead, as candidate Doug Oliver pointed out, most of the mayoral candidates seemed to emerge from a "mayor-making machine" — in other words, a roundup of the usual suspects. The at-large Council race was interesting, though the large field almost worked against itself — too many candidates battling for too few spots.

So now what, Philadelphia?

It's time to open up the electoral process by taking advantage of the many innovations that exist in cities and states across America.

How about online voter registration, as exists in more than 20 states?

Maybe open primaries, such as in Chicago, where any registered voter can vote for any candidates, regardless of party? If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters compete in a runoff election.

Perhaps vote by mail, as they do in Washington and Oregon?

Those are just a few examples of how the city could energize the electorate. I'm not sure which ones would work here, or exactly what the answers are to our voter doldrums. But I know we need to do something.

The current system works fine for the few who control things. In fact, more people turning out, and more independent voters, would actually be a threat to the way things work.

For too many Philadelphians, though, the system does not work. That's not right, and it's time we did something about it. We need a system that encourages participation, competition, and choice. And that's not what we have today.

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