City commissioners run Philadelphia’s elections, and advocates want the Democratic candidates running for the office to have a plan for expanding ballot access while securing elections and making sure they run smoothly.
Good-government groups, civic organizations, and elections advocates, joining together as Better Philadelphia Elections Coalition, released a five-point platform Thursday of issues they want candidates to address.
The three commissioners are elected every four years to run elections. Thirteen candidates are running for two Democratic seats this year. (Lisa Deeley is running for reelection while Anthony Clark is not. Republican Al Schmidt is unopposed for reelection to the minority-party seat.)
“The goal is to spur discussion and debate among the candidates and other folks around the city around the full suite of issues we have running elections in this town,” said Patrick Christmas, policy director at good-government group Committee of Seventy.
“What will [candidates] do as part of a three-headed department to set a singular vision?” Christmas asked.
Many issues — absentee ballot deadlines that meant thousands of votes were rejected last year; absentee ballot rules that disenfranchise firefighters and emergency medical workers — are out of the city’s control.
Thus, commissioners and other officials need to work with lawmakers in Harrisburg to effect change, Christmas said.
“They should be able to speak to the politics as well: What actually has a chance of getting passed in a Republican-controlled legislature?”
Fraud or intimidation is rare, and city officials and the District Attorney’s Office do on-the-ground security work on Election Day, but Christmas wants to know what commissioners will do to improve the system.
Regarding voting machines, Philadelphia’s selection of new systems has drawn intense criticism from city and state watchdogs, along with a vocal group of advocates who want hand-marked paper ballots rather than touchscreen machines that print paper records.
Candidates, Christmas said, need to “be ready to speak to the system that was selected, because all these systems, they’re all imperfect.”
“They also,” he said, “need to be ready to speak to the deployment and rollout.”
Philadelphia should go beyond the requirements of the Voting Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Christmas said, “to ensure not just access to the ballot but the smoothest possible voting experience.”
The issue of language is important and goes beyond just providing information in the polling place, said Andy Toy, development director at SEAMACC, a refugee and immigrant advocacy group.
“It’s also a sense of people feeling that they’re wanted, that they’re welcomed to be part of the process,” he said.
Poll worker training “has just been woefully, woefully inadequate” in the past, but has improved somewhat in recent years, Christmas said.
Still, he would like to see more robust training, including possibly with online components.
Toy said that in the past, workers sometimes have not known all the rules regarding voter assistance, causing issues for voters with language issues.
“If we’re going to think seriously about informing the electorate and nudging turnout upward in a nonpartisan way,” Christmas said, “that work has to happen with the rest of city government.”