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Philly commissioner breaks silence to criticize voting machine decision and call for new selection

When the other two commissioners selected new voting machines, Anthony Clark stayed silent. On Wednesday, a month and a half later, he suddenly spoke up to criticize the decision and call for the process to be restarted.

City Commissioner Anthony Clark during a public hearing on voting machines on Jan. 10, 2019.
City Commissioner Anthony Clark during a public hearing on voting machines on Jan. 10, 2019.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia City Commissioner Anthony Clark, who rarely says anything at board meetings and has a reputation for not showing up to work, suddenly spoke up Wednesday to say he favors invalidating the city’s choice of voting machines and restarting the selection process.

His comments, which caught nearly everyone by surprise, were delivered almost casually during the commissioners’ weekly meeting, after City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart urged the elections officials to nullify the controversial selection of new systems.

“Today I request that this body vacate the commissioners’ earlier decision and draft and reissue a new, fair" request for proposals, Rhynhart said after calling the selection process opaque and biased. “Please don’t deny Philadelphia’s voters a true voice in the selection of these machines.”

Clark, who had not spoken publicly about the decision and did not cast a vote when the commissioners chose the system, responded: “Well, I’d just like to say that I do support your recommendation. That’s all I have to say at this time.”

Advocates have for months implored Philadelphia election officials to select a hand-marked paper ballot system rather than the ES&S ExpressVoteXL system that was chosen Feb. 20. They have accused the commissioners of illegally selecting that machine and called for that vote to be nullfied.

After the meeting, Clark said he shares Rhynhart’s concerns about the cost to taxpayers. He wants to restart the voting machine selection process.

“I just want to give the people a fair chance with other options being available,” Clark said. “We still have a lot to think over.”

He said he didn’t vote for the new machines in February because “it was too early for me.”

Later, he called The Inquirer to reiterate his position. He said that since he had not signed a confidentiality form that would have allowed him to receive information on the selection as it was occurring, he was essentially left out of the process. He added that he learned about the machines only at the public meetings and as advocates criticized the system.

“I didn’t have enough information,” Clark said. “I didn’t even know what options were available, because I didn’t sign the confidentiality [form] and no information was coming to me.”

Nick Custodio, deputy commissioner under Commissioner Lisa Deeley, said the confidentiality and conflict of interest form was standard city practice and that Clark had refused to sign it “against the advice of counsel and the Office of the Chief Integrity Officer.”

Prior to the Feb. 20 meeting, “he never expressed any concerns about the process or his ability to vote,” Custodio said in a statement. “I cannot speak to Commissioner Clark’s motivations for suddenly saying what he said today.”

Clark credited Rhynhart for changing his mind with a letter she sent the commissioners last week.

Rhynhart said she was “pleasantly surprised” and “very happy to hear his words today.” She described Clark’s support as a step toward fixing a problematic decision.

Clark’s criticism was a victory for the advocates who each week have been showing up to commissioners meetings. They now will have to persuade one of the other two acting commissioners. It’s not clear where they stand.

In the days after the voting machine decision, Commissioners Deeley and Al Schmidt recused themselves from taking further actions because they are running for re-election. (Clark is not.) The two judges replacing them for the next few months, Giovanni Campbell and Vincent Furlong, have been hearing the advocates’ comments for weeks but have not taken any action.

Clark said he wanted the judges “to know where I stand just in case anyone else feels the same way” but would not make a motion to invalidate the earlier decision unless he knew it would pass.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Furlong said he wasn’t prepared to act yet.

“At least for myself, sitting as a city commissioner, I’m not ready to make a decision today,” he said. “Doesn’t mean it’s not coming soon.”