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Urban Warrior | A post-election look at poll problems

THE BUZZ WORD "reform" has reverberated throughout the city since former City Councilman Michael Nutter dominated last Tuesday's Democratic primary election for mayor.

THE BUZZ WORD "reform" has reverberated throughout the city since former City Councilman Michael Nutter dominated last Tuesday's Democratic primary election for mayor.

Nutter vows to crack down on City Hall corruption if he can get past nice-guy/no-chance Republican Al Taubenberger in November's general election.

At the risk of being a buzz-kill, let's stop to consider how Tuesday's flower of reform blossomed among the same old weeds of Election Day scamming.

If we're going to reform our government, let's reform how we chose our government, too.

The Committee of Seventy spread poll watchers across the city last Tuesday and is now sifting through hundreds of reports of voting problems. Three topics already cry out for reform.

_ Translators - Philadelphia last month settled a Department of Justice lawsuit that claimed the city didn't offer enough help to Latino voters who could not read or understand English.

Theresa Petosa, a Committee of Seventy volunteer who spent Election Day roaming the river wards, said she found polling places that were not properly staffed with required translators. In one case, the translator was also a Democratic poll worker wearing a T-shirt urging a vote for a specific candidate.

If the city is having trouble recruiting translators, maybe it's because they are paid just $75 for a very long day at the polls.

Zack Stalberg, the president of the Committee of Seventy, said there is little desire among the city commissioners, who run elections, or City Council, which funds that work, to boost pay.

"Definitely the people at the polls deserve more than they're getting," Stalberg said.

_ Electioneering - Polling officials are not supposed to hype candidates, but Petosa received complaints of one official introducing Tom Knox to voters as the "next Philadelphia mayor."

In another division, Petosa was told poll workers ordered people to vote for Democrats. In a third division, volunteers lingered close to machines, offering assistance that looked more like advice on who to vote for.

State law says campaign volunteers must stay at least 10 feet from the polling places, but the eager creep up, trying to be the last person to hand information to voters.

In Texas, the law requires a 100-foot "neutral zone."

Stalberg said 100 feet might be too much for a densely packed city like Philadelphia, but he thinks our setback should be expanded. "Ten feet is probably a little silly and encourages bad behavior," he added.

_ Bogus ballots - In a classic scam, campaigners distribute what appear to be official party sample ballots touting the endorsed candidates. But the ballots really push an unendorsed candidate or drop the name of a candidate in a contested race.

The Committee of Seventy took several of these ballots to Common Pleas Court, where judges are assigned to rule quickly on Election Day disputes. But Philadelphia police were reluctant to enforce orders issued by those judges.

Delay long enough, campaigners know, and Election Day will come and go before a decision.

"There was a lot of disagreement and there was a lot of legal maneuvering," said Coni Ward, an attorney who led a Committee of Seventy Election Day legal team. "They just hope that the clock will run out before anyone can come to a conclusion."

Shelley Smith, a Committee of Seventy board member who supervised legal teams, said police officers first were reluctant to enforce copies of judicial orders and then didn't want to apply those orders as new variations of the bogus ballots started circulating.

Smith, who worked in the city's Law Department for 13 years, said the cops get no training on how to deal with these disputes.

And Stalberg points to an arcane quirk in election law - cops have to stay 100 feet away from polling places unless called there by a local judge of elections.

"So a misbehaving campaign worker can be 10 feet from the polling place but a cop must be 100 feet away," he mused.

Training, in this and many other cases, could be a simple fix to a long-standing election problem.

"All of this is symptoms of 19th-century practices prevailing in the 21st century," Stalberg said. "They're not prevailing because we feel good about it or because we're so sure it's working. They're prevailing because nobody wants to fix them." In the coming months, the Committee of Seventy will offer proposals on how to solve these and other election problems. I'll tell you more about that when those reforms are ready to be rolled out. *

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