This post is part of a larger series.
To create lasting change, there needs to be electoral reform so that participation in elections is easy and fair, and so that representation is fairly apportioned. Here is what needs to change to make this happen.
Gerrymandering is drawing voting districts that benefit a particular party, rather than best represent the voters. Philadelphia has been gerrymandered at every level, but currently the largest problems are at the State and federal levels. State representatives, State senators, and federal representatives all represent a strange mix of contorted districts, designed to lessen the impact of Democratic voters in Philadelphia. I go into much more detail in this post.
We can only end gerrymandering in Pennsylvania through the State legislature. Fair Districts PA has a great outline of this issue. For Congressional boundaries, the current legislative body of the State passes a redistricting law just like any normal law. Therefore, whichever party controls the State legislature and the governorship has near-total control over Congressional boundaries. As for the State legislative districts, the Pennsylvania Constitution places a five-member committee in charge of redistricting. Four of these members are the majority and minority leaders of the Senate and House, or appointees of these people. So, two Republicans and two Democrats. These four members then select a fifth member, the chairperson. If they cannot agree, then a majority of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court appoints the chairperson. Therefore, whoever controls the Supreme Court controls redistricting of Pennsylvania’s legislature. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court is seven members who are directly elected to ten-year terms. If a vacancy arises, or if they fail to win their own re-election (there is no competitor, it’s simply a yes/no vote), then the governor appoints a replacement who must be confirmed by at least two-thirds of the senate.
To change this system, we need to change the Pennsylvania Elections Code and the Constitution. Changing the Elections Code is a matter of passing a law, so that can only be achieved directly by the State legislature voting by majority and the governor signing the bill. Changing the Constitution requires the State House and Senate to pass the same amendment in two legislative sessions, and then for the citizens of Pennsylvania to ratify it by majority in a ballot referendum.
Deciding which system to replace it with is a different question. Fair Districts PA advocates creating a commission of citizens who are independent of the parties, lobbies, or any other influence. There are strong examples from other states that they reference. There are a range of other proposals, including algorithm-assisted districting, multi-representative districts, removing districts altogether, or removing humans from the process entirely. Personally, I agree with Fair Districts PA that an independent commission should manage the process. This way, we maintain local representation, while removing political influence from districting. The commission could be directly elected on the statewide level, and there could be stringent requirements for who is eligible. There could also be clear and robust guidelines on districting that the commission must follow, a transparent process, and ample opportunity for input.
I think any system that removes districting power from vested interests and places it more directly in the hands of the public is the most important aspect. As long as we remove the current conflict of interest that exists, then we have an improvement. Regardless of the system we choose, it will require passing legislation and an amendment to the State Constitution.
It is worth noting that any changes to State law or the State Constitution will supersede Philadelphia’s law and Home Rule Charter. So, if there are redistricting reforms from the State level that also impact local government, then Philadelphia’s own redistricting laws will be superseded by them. In this way, State-level reform can also reform Philadelphia’s own redistricting issues.
Access to information
I began this section as a frustrated voter who frequently was surprised by what is on the ballot, leading to either blind votes or no votes at all for certain candidates. However, I have found that there have been some great new resources available online filling this information gap.
The City Commissioners are in charge of election in Philadelphia, and they have a great website. This site offers information about current elected officials, the voting process, voter registration, electoral boundaries, sample ballots, and so much more. It really has embraced modern technology to make information accessible to the voter, and even to potential candidates.
There is one element it’s missing, which I found somebody has already been working on. Philadelphia’s ward and division elections are not included, since they aren’t really municipal, State, or federal elections; they’re positions in the Democratic or Republican parties. This website, in partnership the Committee of Seventy, has created an excellent one-stop resource for ward information, including listing all ward leaders and committee members.
Another gap is in listing more information than just the name, party, and contact information for each elected official or candidate. However, this isn’t really the job of the City Commissioners, since they’re supposed to remain neutral on elections. I’ve been working on another project to try and fill this information gap, though it is partisan. Still, my goal is to provide information on each elected official and candidate, including their stances on key issues and any other information voters might need to know, such as whether a candidate has campaign finance violations.
There is also a website, run by the Department of Records, where you can find campaign finance information and other financial reports from elected officials. This is a phenomenal resource for transparency. The only issue is that it’s difficult to find financial information on currently running candidates, since these reports are usually not posted until much later.
City Commissioners reform
The City Commissioners are three directly elected positions tasked with overseeing all of Philadelphia’s elections and making sure they’re in accordance with the law. No more than two members can be from the same party, and they have one chair. They are elected every four years, with no term limits. See their website for more details, their creation in the Home Rule Charter, or their description in Article Three of the State Election Code. Strangely, the City Commissioners are still considered a county-level role created by the State, even though they are part of the city-county consolidation.
The City Commissioners have received a lot of criticism over the years. The Committee of Seventy has a detailed report on the issues of these offices, including one particularly bad case where a previous commissioner attempted to fix elections. They also note that the commissioners have a conflict of interest in being able to serve as ward leaders (many of them do), engaging in political activities, and overseeing elections that would impact their own positions. Finally, they note the inefficiencies created by having three elected officials given the same task, with no guidelines on how to divvy up that responsibility or who has decision-making power. The result has been lots of overlapping offices, outdated equipment and processes, and fighting over policies and decision-making. More recently, the State Attorney General Eugene DePasquale has been criticizing the commissioners for their purchase of $50 million of voting machines, since they apparently received kickbacks and various gifts that may have influenced the decision.
The Committee of Seventy advocates for abolishing the Office of the City Commissioners entirely, and replacing it with appointed positions. The Committee of Seventy and the Better Philly Elections Coalition have been engaged in a campaign for this purpose.
I am not convinced that this proposal will solve the problems, and will not instead shift the problems to another office. Anybody who is appointed will be just as much of a political insider, and even worse, will be beholden to whoever appoints them. These appointees would still have a conflict of interest in elections that impact their offices, impact whoever appointed them, and due to their general political activity. Additionally, there is no reason why this would solve the other issues of corruption, inefficiency, opacity, or mismanagement.
Directly electing watchdog officials is a way to insulate them from departmental politics and to keep them as independent as possible. The City Controller offers a perfect example. She is directly elected precisely because her office is in charge of investigating other departments and offices, including those who would otherwise appoint her. I think, therefore, that it would be best to keep the City Commissioners directly elected, but to enact reforms to remove or mitigate conflicts of interest and to enhance oversight. For instance, we could pass a Home Rule Charter amendment requiring the commissioners to recuse themselves from elections that impact their offices and to prohibit them from political activity (including serving as ward leaders or committee members). The State Election Code already has some of these regulations for County Commissioners—let’s model our own rules on these. Note that there is currently a dispute over whether these regulations apply to Philadelphia’s own commissioners, due to their awkward legal status. Finally, empowered watchdog departments, as I posted about earlier, could prioritize auditing the City Commissioners.
There is one issue with this proposal. As elected officials, the City Commissioners will inevitably be overseeing their very own elections every four years. That is a fundamental conflict of interest that is unique to this office. Perhaps, therefore, it would be best to opt for a system where election officials are appointed, like Committee of Seventy recommends. However, the department or board could be a mixture of appointees from different sources and elected officials. What’s more, they could have staggered terms so that appointees or elected members don’t take office immediately or at the same time as each other. This would disperse any opportunities for conflict of interest as broadly as possible, while creating natural checks and balances within the election oversight body.
This is the best solution I see, but again, I think the exact solution is not as important as generally agreeing that there needs to be reform. The City Commissioners need to be 1) directly accountable to the public; 2) void of conflicts of interest to the greatest extent possible; 3) transparent to the greatest extent possible; 4) managed with the highest levels of ethics and efficiency as possible. As long as we maintain these elements, then I believe it’s a good reform.
Wards are a somewhat opaque and confusing issue, but after learning more about them, I’m convinced that they are overall a good thing for Philadelphia. The ward system is a party institution that offers a way for grassroots participation in politics. However, it does need some reforms.
Philadelphia is divided into 66 wards, and each ward is divided into 10-50 divisions. Divisions are the smallest political unit of the City, usually comprising a couple blocks. A ward is usually about the size of a neighborhood. Each division elects two Democratic and two Republican committee member every four years. Only members of the party can vote, since the ward system is a party institution. Shortly after the election, the committee members elect a ward leader. After that election, the ward leaders election a leader of all of the wards, who is the county-level party leader. In total, there are more than 3,000 committee members and 70 ward leaders from each party (two wards get extra members due to their size).
The function of ward leaders and committee members is a little bit open-ended. Committee members primarily run get-out-the-vote drives and assist with election day. More involved members might invite elected officials to the community to speak, bring local concerns to elected officials, and try to engage people in general. However, the most significant task of committee members is electing the ward leader. Ward leaders have considerable influence. They have all of the roles of committee members, but they are also in charge of issuing endorsements for elections and doling out “street cash,” which is usually a couple hundred dollars for everyday campaign or election activities. Since Philadelphia typically has lots of offices up for election that nobody has ever heard of, most voters rely on these endorsements. This is why Philadelphia elections have traditionally been decided by ward endorsements.
Finally, perhaps the most significant power ward leaders have is selecting candidates for special elections. A special election happens when a representative dies, resigns, or is removed from office. The rules of the Democratic Party dictate that the ward leaders in that representative’s district vote on the Democratic candidate, and if they fail to, then the county chair selects the candidate. Since Philadelphia is a one-party town, this means that the ward leaders are essentially choosing the next representative.
Despite offering a wonderfully democratic, grassroots method for political participation, the ward system is not without its flaws. First, ward leaders or the chairperson selecting candidates in special elections is decidedly undemocratic. Even though these people are themselves elected and indirectly elected, it leaves a sour taste in voters’ mouths when they are unnecessarily circumvented. Surely, there is no reason why the voters of that district cannot conduct a primary. This is a particularly despised aspect of the ward system, since Philadelphia has special elections so frequently. It is generally perceived that, when an elected official goes down due to corruption charges (such as in District 190 recently), party insiders use the ward system to select yet another insider to replace them. Even if ward leaders are conducting a fair process for selection, let’s eliminate this system and go directly to the voters so that we can be sure a fair system is in place and build more trust in our political system.
Originally, I felt that it’s a conflict of interest for elected officials to also serve as ward leaders. However, I looked into the legal basis of the wards. I found that wards and divisions are not created by the State Constitution, the Home Rule Charter, or any laws as a public institution. Rather, they have a long and complicated history dating back to the 1600s for police districts, and the current boundaries were defined by a court promulgation in 1965. City Council districts simply build upon the ward system by defining their boundaries from the wards in the Home Rule Charter. The elected division committee members and ward leaders have nothing to do with publicly elected officials, and everything to do with party policies. Therefore, being a committee member or ward leader is no more a conflict of interest than being a member of a party in any other capacity. The only position where I see a conflict of interest is in the City Commissioners serving as ward leaders, since they are in charge of overseeing elections. Therefore, the parties should amend their rules so that election officials cannot simultaneously serve as ward leaders or committee members.
Originally, I also felt that it is too much power for ward leaders to effectively decide elections through their endorsements. However, now I see this differently. As a party institution, ward leaders and committee members have been elected by their neighbors, with the understanding that they are being trusted with endorsements. This is just one way for conducting advocacy for particular candidates. Voters are free to ignore these recommendations, as they did in the Larry Krasner, Rebecca Rhynhart, and Elizabeth Fiedler elections. Additionally, this is not an issue as long as voters can access plentiful information about candidates outside of ward recommendations. If we continue to push for robust, public posting of information about candidates, then ward leaders no longer have a stranglehold on local elections.
Finally, the ward system is notoriously opaque. Elections of ward leaders, the county chair, and other meetings are behind closed doors. Ward finances are also not adequately tracked or reported. The parties should amend their rules requiring higher levels of transparency, such as record meeting minutes and posting them online.
Former Governor Ed Rendell gave several recommendations for reform in 2017. Rendell recommends, among other things, that the party no longer automatically endorse ward leaders who are running for office, and that the party abstain from recommending candidates who aren’t endorsed by outside organizations, like the Philadelphia Bar Association. He also recommends holding elections every two years, rather than four, to avoid entrenchment. Bob Brady, former Congressman and the current county chair, disagrees, saying that it would cause too much chaos. I think Rendell’s suggestions are effective methods of keeping the benefits of the ward system, while mitigating some of the negative aspects. We should go one step further—imposing term limits on committee members, ward leaders, and the county chair.
All of this can only happen at the party level. This presents a unique kind of challenge. We could go the route of trying to pass legislation or a Home Rule Charter amendment requiring these reforms, but it is much easier and probably more effective for his change to happen from the ground up. There needs to be a broad movement of people running for committee to reshape the parties from within.
Common sense election reform
There are several simple reforms that will make it easier to vote that the State should enact. State law requires all elections in Pennsylvania to be conducted in the same way.
Absentee voting: Currently, Pennsylvania’s Constitution only allows voters to cast absentee votes if they meet certain criteria, such as having an official duty that requires them to be away from home. This effectively prevents mail-in ballots in general.
Election day: Currently, the Pennsylvania Constitution requires all elections to be held on the same days, unless the legislature votes otherwise by at least two-thirds. There are no options to allow for weekend voting or other early voting, and there’s no option to move election days to holidays or other days where more people can vote.
Felony convictions: Currently, State law says that if you have been incarcerated within the past five years for a felony, then you are not allowed to register to vote. However, a Commonwealth Court case in 2000 ruled that this is unconstitutional (also see this source). Still, felons who are currently incarcerated are not allowed to vote.
Automatic registration: Currently, Pennsylvania law makes it easy to register to vote while getting a driver’s license or seeking government services, but it does not create automatic registration.
Voting should be as accessible as possible. We need to amend the Constitution and pass laws allowing for mail-in ballots, early voting, universal suffrage, and automatic voter registration.
Here are all of my election reform recommendations in sum:
- Pass State legislation to update the Election Code to take Congressional districting power away from the legislature and governor, instead placing it in a directly elected body with stringent oversight, transparency, vetting of members, and public participation.
- Pass an amendment to the State Constitution to take State legislative districting power away from the current system, and instead placing it in the same institution described above.
- Continue to post as much information about the electoral process online as possible, and in other mediums for those without Internet access.
- Pass Home Rule Charter amendments to reform the City Commissioners’ Office by:
- Replacing the offices with a board or department of elections that is a mixture of appointed members from various sources and directly elected members with staggered terms.
- Pass a Home Rule Charter amendment requiring election officials to recuse themselves from elections impacting their own offices and prohibiting them from political activities (including serving as a ward leader).
- Focus audits and other oversight on the City Commissioner Office to enhance accountability and improve management.
- Launch a grassroots movement to run for division committee members in order to change several party policies, including:
- Put special elections to a direct primary vote;
- Prohibit election officials or other offices that may have a conflict of interest from serving as ward leaders or committee members;
- Require recordings of meeting minutes, votes, and finances, and require them to be posted publicly;
- End the practice of always endorsing current ward leaders who are running for office simply because they are ward leaders;
- End the practice of endorsing candidates who fail to gain outside endorsements from reputable organizations; and
- Impose term limits for every office of two four-year terms.
- Amend the Pennsylvania Election Code to:
- Make voter registration automatic whenever somebody interacts with the government in a way where they give the same information needed for registration; and
- Allow currently convicted felons to vote and register to vote.
- Amend Pennsylvania’s Constitution to:
- Allow for absentee voting for any reasons; and
- Allow for a period of early voting, for placing election days on holidays or weekends, and for making election days holidays.
All of these recommendations boil down to passing legislation, amending constitutions, running for office, and creating ways for information to be accessible. So, all of this requires electing candidates who support these reforms, pressuring current candidates to support these reforms, running for office, and creating grassroots campaigns.