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Philly’s elections chief misled voters about delays in sending out mail ballots

Lisa Deeley’s obfuscation could further erode trust as growing elements of the Republican Party are seeking to undermine election results — especially by attacking Philadelphia.

City Commissioner Lisa Deeley, Philadelphia's top elections official, outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center in 2021.
City Commissioner Lisa Deeley, Philadelphia's top elections official, outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center in 2021.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia’s top elections official and her office knowingly misled voters multiple times this month when they said adding special elections for City Council seats to the November ballot did not delay mail ballots being sent to voters.

With critical elections for governor and U.S. Senate looming, voters casting ballots by mail have been eager to receive and return them as early as possible. And Philadelphia was poised to have ballots out earlier than ever, sending them to voters on the first day state law allows. That timeline was in fact pushed twice following decisions by the Council president to call special elections for seats left vacant by lawmakers who resigned to run for mayor next year. City Commissioner Lisa Deeley’s office has previously acknowledged those delays.

But as officials received some blowback from Democrats for the delays, Deeley and her office began to spin a new narrative, contradicting facts that it’s her job to know as chair of the city’s elections board — facts she herself acknowledges when pressed. Deeley’s statements denying a delay were demonstrably untrue; she and her office made them multiple times; and she clearly knew the truth at the time, as she gave accurate answers when pressed.

Deeley’s obfuscation could further erode trust as growing elements of the Republican Party are seeking to undermine election results — especially by attacking Philadelphia. It comes as close observers of city politics say Deeley is worried about her reelection prospects next year, especially after a parochial spat with Philly’s Democratic Party leader.

In an email Tuesday, Deeley’s office denied any dishonesty and emphasized that ballots went out at about the same time as in prior elections since the expansion of mail voting in 2020. That is true, and Deeley’s office has pressed that point to avoid discussing how the Council races pushed the timeline. Tuesday’s statement didn’t acknowledge the inaccuracy of her previous comments and largely sought to argue over the word “delay.”

What could have been a relatively minor election administration issue started in September, when Council President Darrell L. Clarke, on two occasions, added Council races to the November ballot. Each time, that required city elections staffers to halt work on previous versions of the ballots, wait more than two weeks under state law for candidates to file paperwork, and then redesign ballots with the added races.

Ballots went out starting Oct. 10, three weeks after they would have without the Council elections.

But asked at a news conference on Oct. 12, Deeley said those races hadn’t slowed the process. She repeated that denial two days later at another news conference.

Political insiders said Deeley, a Democrat, seemed to be covering for Clarke, who drew some criticism because the delays could, in theory, make it harder for Democrats to win competitive races by shortening the mail-voting window. Deeley’s relationship with Bob Brady, the former congressman who leads the city party, has been rocky after a dispute about how party committee people are elected, Brady and others familiar with the matter said.

Nick Custodio, Deeley’s deputy, said in the email Tuesday that it’s “totally out of left field and completely inaccurate” to suggest political considerations influenced Deeley’s comments. And he repeated Deeley’s contradictory answers.

“Did the calling of the specials affect the timing — No, ballots went out the same time as they normally go out,” Custodio wrote. “Would they have gone out earlier if NO specials were called — Yes, they could have gone out early.”

Joe Grace, a Clarke spokesperson, said Tuesday that Clarke’s office “checked with the commissioners’ office prior to calling for these special elections. We didn’t want anything to impede with their normal timeline — and it appears they’ve met or even exceeded that timeline a little.”

The facts about the mail ballot timeline

Pennsylvania’s mail-voting window begins 50 days before Election Day, which this year was Sept. 19. That’s when the first ballots can, in theory, go out. In practice, there are usually legal challenges that hold up the process.

But there were no such challenges this year to Philly candidates. That meant there was nothing — until the Council races — that prevented ballots from being mailed Sept. 19.

“We are on track for day 50,” Custodio said in early September when asked about the timeline, referring to the start of the 50-day window.

But questions were already swirling as Council members resigned with an eye on the mayor’s race. Council vacancies are filled by special elections, which can occur during the next regularly scheduled election.

On Sept. 9, the first day he legally could, Clarke issued “writs of election” for two of the four open seats. Those were the seats that represent geographic districts, not the at-large ones representing the city. Mail ballots would no longer be available Sept. 19, Deeley’s office confirmed after Clarke’s order: They would go out the first week of October instead.

On Sept. 15, Clarke, partly in response to a rare veto by Mayor Jim Kenney, called elections for the at-large seats.

The ballots would be delayed again, Deeley’s office acknowledged.

“We are just looking at it,” Custodio said that day. “This should only add a few days.”

What Lisa Deeley said about the mail ballot timeline

The second delay raised eyebrows in Democratic circles. Soon, Deeley and Custodio began to deny any delay.

At an Oct. 12 news conference, a reporter asked Deeley how the special elections affected mail ballots: “Did that do anything to slow down the process?”

“It did not,” Deeley said falsely, with Clarke in attendance.

Deeley then accurately called this year’s timeline roughly consistent with the few elections that have taken place since Pennsylvania greatly expanded mail voting. But she had still misled the public when answering the question. And that message was reflected in multiple news reports.

To determine whether Deeley simply misspoke, The Inquirer attended another election-related news conference two days later to ask again: “Did the calling of the City Council special election have any impact on the timing of the sending of the ballots?”

“No,” Deeley said, “our staff works tirelessly to get those ballots out.”

The Inquirer then asked: “So had those specials not been called, ballots would not have been sent earlier?” Deeley’s answer showed she was aware of the facts. When pressed that second time, Deeley gave a truthful answer that contradicted her first one: Yes, she acknowledged, the Council races affected the timeline because “we had candidates that were now added.”

‘A couple of arguments’ with Bob Brady

Deeley and Brady, the local party chair, have had a rocky time in recent months, Democratic sources said.

“Yeah, a couple of arguments,” Brady confirmed. He cited a conflict over the number of votes candidates needed to win party committee seats in the May primary, and some complaints from ward leaders about Deeley identifying problems with their candidacy paperwork.

“A couple of people are disturbed about it,” Brady said. “Is it nuclear? I don’t think so. I’ve been talking to her. She said she’s going to work with us.”

After Deeley butted heads with Brady, another potential reelection threat came from a close Brady ally.

In August, John Brady — who is not related to Bob Brady — posted on Facebook what appeared to be a campaign sign with his name, with no specific office mentioned. That sparked chatter about John Brady, the state Democratic Party’s director for Philly, possibly running against Deeley next year.

It’s highly unlikely John Brady would publicly explore a run without Bob Brady’s approval. John Brady said people have approached him about running for commissioner or other offices, but that he’s focused for now on the November election.

The job of city commissioner can be obscure, and candidates rely on good relations with party leaders. It makes sense that Deeley would hold onto whatever allies she can. And Clarke has been one.

He’s one of the most powerful elected officials in the city. Deeley has clashed with the Kenney administration during recent budget negotiations while asking Council for help. And Council has delivered money and support.

But as Deeley herself says often, it’s important for people to trust elections officials.

As she put it during the Oct. 12 news conference: “We want to be a place where people go for accurate information.”