The city's top election official, Stephanie Singer, was toppled from the role Wednesday when her two fellow city commissioners voted to dump her as chair of the three-member panel and make themselves cochairmen.
The move by Republican Al Schmidt and Democrat Anthony Clark was a surprise to Singer and apparently to Clark, who said he knew nothing about replacing Singer until Schmidt made the motion at the commissioners' first postelection meeting.
The commissioners weathered strong criticism from outsiders, including Mayor Nutter, for various Election Day problems. Schmidt, however, commended the city's election workers for "an absolutely amazing job of which we're all very proud, literally working through the eye of a hurricane" to prepare for Tuesday's election.
In the weeks ahead, Schmidt said, his office will talk to the staff "to figure out what it is that we can do better. A new beginning, however, requires new leadership, and at this point, I make a motion to reorganize the commission, to replace Commissioner Singer as chair and nominate Commissioner Clark and myself as cochairmen."
Clark immediately seconded the motion. Clark and Schmidt voted in favor, Singer against, and she pulled back her chair, allowing Schmidt and Clark to preside for the rest of the meeting.
The coup came as the election office took continued flak for its performance on Election Day - widely reported problems with registered voters allegedly missing from city poll books, several dozen Republican inspectors denied their spots on local election boards, and ominous rumors of polling places running out of provisional ballots.
Nutter joined the critics Wednesday, calling the commissioners office "a bit of a three-ring circus."
"I think there are some really serious issues that need to be addressed in the commissioners office, and I expect that we will be making a series of inquiries about their operations," Nutter told The Inquirer.
"This is an operation where you have three different people in charge and at the moment it appears that no one is in charge," Nutter said. "I've been in this business 30 years and I don't recall, for this level of an election, that level of seeming confusion, finger-pointing, and lack of coordination."
Singer's ouster appeared to have nothing to do with the election, however.
The three commissioners had been bickering for months at their weekly public sessions over seemingly small issues, most recently Singer's bid to give a $12,000 raise to her top deputy, an effort shot down by Schmidt and Clark.
Singer was a vocal opponent of the state's new voter-ID law and got the Law Department to draft an amicus brief trying to overturn the law. Neither Clark nor Schmidt signed on.
"It's no secret we've had a bumpy time this past year and we're looking to resolve that issue," Schmidt said later. "Each commissioner is independently elected, none of us has any more votes or influence than any other. . . . We had disagreements at times over the role of the chair and making sure that all of the commissioners are equal to each other. "
"It was a surprise," Singer said. She said she did not know what would happen next. Asked for her reaction, she said: "I'm here to serve the people of Philadelphia, I'm here for free and fair elections and an informed, engaged electorate, and a respectful and effective workplace. There are many, many different ways to do that job."
Singer, a mathematician who came to the area to teach at Haverford College, got into Democratic politics as a volunteer in 2004, working with election data on John Kerry's presidential campaign.
She became a Democratic committeewoman in Center City, succeeded a retiring ward leader, and won her first election last year, beating longtime Commissioners Chair Marge Tartaglione in the 2011 primary.
Clark, now in his second term, was clearly interested in becoming chairman. But Schmidt and Singer had both developed reform agendas for the agency and Schmidt supported Singer for chair when the three were sworn into office last January.
"Stephanie and I were elected to do a lot of the same things," Schmidt said. "I'm certain Stephanie and I are still committed to doing those same things. . . . How we get there is the bigger issue, perhaps."