Talk about a get-out-the-vote effort gone wrong.
A labor-backed group trying to encourage voter participation ahead of Tuesday's election mistakenly sent out voter information cards to 30,000 city residents - directing them to the wrong polling place.
The group, Pennsylvania Working Families, said the mailer was part of an effort to encourage occasional voters to get to the polls, providing information such as hours and polling place locations. It was titled "Important Information for Philadelphia Voters."
But the cards directed residents to the wrong polling places, alarming recipients who feared they'd been targeted by a voter-suppression campaign.
"It's very bad," said City Commissioner Al Schmidt. He said that his office had been swamped with calls and e-mails and that officials scrambled all weekend to find out what happened and figure out how to correct it.
"Our ability to mitigate the damage is limited at this point," he said.
Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, interim president of the Committee of Seventy, said whether intentional or not, the damage was done, coming so close to an election.
"It was disturbing," said Kathy Perron of Northern Liberties. She said two people in her household received the cards.
In an apology issued Saturday, Working Families blamed the problem on a staff member incorrectly programming the "mail merge" in its voter spreadsheets, resulting in postcards with incorrect polling places.
"It was a human error, and a big one, but an honest one," the group's director, Kati Sipp said in her apology statement. "We take this error seriously, and we are taking every step possible to correct it. With all the dirty tricks Philadelphia voters have seen, the last thing we would want is to further any confusion."
But that was exactly how several voters who received cards and contacted The Inquirer said they felt.
"What they attempted to do was worse than if they had done nothing at all," said Anne Bornschein of West Philadelphia. "Incompetence is worse than inaction in this case. It looked like a voter-suppression effort."
She said the mailer told her her polling place was the Jenks School at 13th and Porter Streets in South Philadelphia, when her actual polling station is the Kingsessing Library on 51st Street in West Philadelphia.
Perron said the information links on the card - an 800 telephone number and the Department of State website - were misleading and pointless in trying to answer why she was being told to go to a different polling place.
Worst of all, Bornschein said, was that the sender was identified only as the "Pennsylvania Voter Education Initiative."
Sipp said her group intentionally kept its name out because Working Families is a political organization that endorses candidates, and the mailer was supposed to be nonpartisan.
"We didn't want people to think we were telling them who to vote for," she said.
Working Families set up a phone bank over the weekend to try to call the recipients and give them correct information, Sipp said.
The blunder comes as Pennsylvanians prepare to vote in their first general election since a Commonwealth Court judge overturned the state's voter ID law in January.
Pennsylvania spent $6 million in state and federal money to educate voters about the need for ID at the polls after passage of the law in 2012. It spent no money this year to alert voters that they no longer needed ID, a Department of State spokesman said.
Working Families, an independent political organization supported by a number of labor groups - including the Service Employees International Union, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees - began in the spring in Pennsylvania as one of eight state groups promoting what it calls a progressive agenda.
Among its issues are improving education, affordable housing, minimum wage, health-care access, and climate change.
For election information, including polling sites, visit the City Commissioner's website or call the office at http://www.philadelphiavotes.com.