city commissioners

Elections Matter; Support Honkala, Boockvar, Schmidt

This is the email that Neighborhood Networks sent to all of its members earlier today:

You might not know it from the (lack of) media coverage, but there’s an important election coming on Tuesday, November 8. Up for election will be the Mayor, the entire City Council, the City Commissioner’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office, the Register of Wills Office, and many judicial offices. There will also be two ballot questions that are being considered.

Neighborhood Networks does not endorse in all of these races. We exist to advance progressive policies, through electoral means and otherwise. We only endorse candidates when their election would clearly advance our larger goals. In this election there are six candidates in contested races that meet that test. They are, Kathryn Boockvar, for Commonwealth Court, Stephanie Singer, for City Commissioner, Al Schmidt for City Commissioner, Cheri Honkala for Sheriff, Blondell Reynolds Brown for Council at-Large and Cindy Bass for City Council in the 8th District.

Only three of these candidates are in difficult races, Boockvar, Schmidt and Honkala. Please do everything you can to help their very important candidacies. Let’s look at them one by one.

Neighborhood Networks Endorses Six

Neighborhood Networks has endorsed an impressive and inspiring group of candidates in the Spring primary, all of whom care about social justice and global sustainability in ways that their track records tell us is real.

Two of these candidates are incumbents and four would be newly elected, but they all share a commitment to progressive values. Here is the list, and a capsule summary of what is special about each of them.

City Council At-Large -- Challengers

You know, let's not even worry about the City Commissioners office messing up voter registration processing

On an otherwise very happy Election Day this year, one dark spot was the mess the city made of processing new registrations and absentee ballots.

This failure went beyond the expected "I thought I registered but I never got a card." I saw many people coming in to the polling place with valid brand new registration cards, mailed to them by the city, only to be nowhere on the voter rolls. Nor on the supplemental rolls, printed out the day before.

Voting provisionally isn't the end of the world, but because in most cases that vote will not be counted it's frustrating for someone excited to cast a vote for the first time.

And then there were the "recieved after Election Day" absentee ballots.

Sure, the City Commissioners office should be reformed. Might be a good topic for the budget talks. But, to fix the voting administration problems, we should look bigger. Project Vote has compiled links to examples of recent public support for a new, federal, way of handling voter registration. The goal would be to have the federal government, rather than individuals or third-party registration drives, be responsible for getting every of-age citizen on the rolls. Look at the arguments below after the break, and let's start advocating for this.

EDIT: Kati says below, "If you are interested in working on election law reform in PA, there is a meeting on Friday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. at the Labor Council office (22 S. 22nd St.) to debrief the election protection efforts of various non-partisan groups, and to begin to strategize about a legislative agenda on election reform in 2009."

Are the City Commissioners Going to Disenfranchise My Brother?

My little brother Louie is 21-years old, registered to vote in Philly, and away at college in the Midwest. He has voted before, and like all good U-A’s is excited to vote in Tuesday’s election. Since he is away at college, he requested an absentee ballot. Yet, as of this post, Louie has not received his absentee ballot.

My ex-boss’ son is 18 years old. This will be the very first election he is eligible to vote in. (Good timing!) He registered in Philly and requested an absentee ballot. He too is away at college in the Midwest. As of this post, not only has he not received a ballot, he has not received a notice that he is formally registered.

Two children of my parent’s friend are eligible voters, registered to vote in Powelton. They requested absentee ballots, as well. As of today, they have not received their absentee ballots.

Those are stories that were not sought out- but that were told to my dad in a span of about one day. It leads me to believe that something is up at the City Commissioners Office, where the influx of new registrations may have overwhelmed them to the point of sending out absentee ballots very late, if at all.

And if those four voters do not get their ballots on time, what is the solution? Unless they happen to be in Philly, apparently nothing. They will just have been disenfranchised. (If they are in Philly, they can show up to the polls and just vote anyway.)

There has to be a solution to this. In the 2004 primary, Ed Rendell kept open the collection of absentee ballots for military and overseas voters for weeks, because two counties had failed to get absentee ballots out to them on time. It seems like we are in need of something similar here.

Hopefully, the worry of these kids will subside, when with Monday's mail, their absentee ballots all happen to arrive. But if not, my little brother and others are going to be disenfranchised by the Philadelphia City Commissioners. Amazing.

Election Day Ballot Lawsuit Filed

Yesterday, the Public Interest Law Center (PILCOP), the NAACP, Voter Action and others filed a lawsuit in Federal Court to make a basic demand for election day: If a division in the City or State has at least half of its machines out of order (for many divisions, that would realistically be one machine), then voters in that division must be allowed to vote on emergency paper ballots, so that they will not be disenfranchised.

This all is a very real concern. Last election, there were documented stories of broken machines and long lines leading to people giving up, and even campaign workers telling them to go home. And that was not a unique occurrence to the primary. In fact, after studying the failure rate of our voting machines, the plaintiffs come to a scary conclusion:

As Dr. Lopresti’s analysis confirms, assuming a conservative breakdown rate of 10%, there is an 18% probability that a precinct with two machines will be operating at 50% of its capacity by the end of Election Day. Assuming a 20% breakdown rate, there is a 32% probability that a precinct with two machines will be operating at 50% of its capacity by the end of Election Day.

When you combine that level of failure, along with the outpouring of turnout that we all know we will see, there is the potential for chaos on election day, and for a lot of people being disenfranchised. That is why the lawsuit is making the basic demand: that paper ballots be available if the machines fail.

One thing that is amusing in the lawsuit is that some of the evidence for why need an injunction against the city are the arrogant words of Fred Voight- the former head of the Committee for Seventy, who now works for the City Commissioners. Voight, in a video shown here, was asked about machine failures causing long lines, and gave us these charming words:

Are there lines? Of course there are. Tough. That’s the way it works.” “People are always going to have to wait in line. I mean, get a life.” When asked if an emergency paper ballot could be used in Philadelphia to alleviate long lines and overstressed polls, Voight stated: “Forget a long line. A long line is not justification for anything except waiting.”

When I saw that this lawsuit was filed, the first thing I did was to do a ‘find’ and see if those words were going to be used against him. Lo and behold….

Look, this is a very basic request in any election. But in one such as this, where we know turnout will be sky high, this is a must, and is so basic. Print the paper ballots, and make sure that all Pennsylvanians have the right to vote. And in a sane world, the Philadelphia City Commissioners should simply volunteer to do this here.

Historical Philadelphia Election Results Online

I sort of knew this was coming, but it is nice to see it out there: At least from 2002-2008, historical election results are now online. And no, the City did not put them there.

Stephanie Frank Singer, a computer-savvy activist with a nonprofit organization dedicated to "election transparency," recently paid $195 to the city commissioners to buy six years' worth of Philadelphia election results, and she's making them available to the public - for free - through her Web site, (Look down the list on the left-hand side for "Phila election results".)

The data include division-by-division results on every Philadelphia election beginning with 2002. For people interested in just a couple of wards or divisions, Singer created an easier search device at

None of this is rocket science. Singer got the results for 15 elections on the Web within an hour after buying the data from city election officials. She estimates that she spent eight hours creating the search device.

While our fight with the Commissioners has been going on, Stephanie has been pushing the Commissioners behind the scenes to release historical data. After a long battle with them, and in the midst of our fight, they finally relented. And so, at least for the last 14 elections or so, division by division results are available on the web.

As the article notes, she has posted the raw data for all to download, for free. But, it did cost her some money ($195 total). So, if you believe in the kind of work she did, chip in a couple bucks (there is a donation link on her page) and help defray the cost.

Great work, Stephanie!

The City Commits- in Writing- to Providing Election Returns for All

On Friday afternoon, the City committed to produce electronic election results for all to see. In her interview with Mike Dunn of KYW, City Solicitor Shelley Smith already said they were going to do this, but, it sure is nice to see it in writing:

The City is currently developing a system to allow the public access to a hosted website where election results will be provided. The plan for the next election in November is to provide near real time summary results and the ability to drill down into election details (ward-by-ward, division-by-division, etc) on this hosted website. Polling data and returns should be updated approximately every 10 to 15 minutes as the returns are verified by the City Commissioners. Furthermore, there will be a link on both the City of Philadelphia's main homepage and the City Commissioner's homepage directing interested users to this hosted website.

And, those treasured passwords will become largely useless for the average person, and will now be strictly restricted:

The system for which you request access to is only equipped to handle 150-200 users at one time. Going forward, access will be strictly limited to employees of the City Commissioners and the personnel from the Department of State. These employees will use the internal system to provide needed returns and data to both the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the new hosted site (explained in detail below). No passwords for this internal system will be provided to anyone outside of this group.

That makes sense, especially from a security perspective.

So, given what they have committed to doing, and the new role passwords will have, the City has en masse denied all the requests for passwords. If you want to appeal, instructions are in the letter. My unsolicited advice though, is to let it be, because this is clearly happening. Yes, there is always a chance something could get screwed up. But, I feel pretty confident that this will all happen. (Next push from an interested party who wants to make a difference: Historical results.)

There are some people in this whole thing who have been really helpful. First, thanks to Jim Kenney, the only Councilperson to quickly respond when this whole saga began, for his help behind the scenes. Having the Mayor jump in was A-OK, too. And, Shelley Smith, the City Solicitor, came out on the side of open government, and forced the hand of the Commissioners, by granting my original appeal. They could have made this harder on us than they did. So, to our friends in the City Solicitor’s Office, sorry for being collective pains in the ass. I wish I could say this is the last you will have to deal with us. But, somehow, I doubt it.

And, of course, a lot of credit for this has to go to Ed Goppelt of Hallwatch. Ed was opening up Philly government before it was cool.

But, most of all, to the 400 or so people who requested passwords, pat yourselves on the back. Publishing election returns will not end poverty in Philadelphia. It will not fix the schools. Hey, for that matter, it won’t bring our troops home from Iraq, either. But it is a basic function of government that should be provided, yet hasn’t been. By November, it appears that will change.

Hmm. This will do.

Mike Nutter is Spartacus! Or, Shelley Smith is... Oh forget it.

Anyway, this is pretty cool:

Mayor Nutter is now supporting a Penn Law student's effort to get voting results available to everyone on election night, and he wants changes in place by the November election.


But the city commissioners' office, which oversees elections, says altering their system would present tremendous technical hurdles. Staffers there say exporting data to a web page would require periodic system shutdowns during election night, impeding the tally.

Now, though, city solicitor Shelley Smith says Mayor Nutter wants the voting returns opened up to all, preferably by November:

"The Mayor is committed to making this happen, and to offering the city's resources to find a solution to the problem. And the mayor's goal is to have this done by election day. So its our hope that we can get it done."

So, uh, that will work.

As I said, behind the scenes, my sense was that the Law Department was on our side- and that the City Solicitor helped this all happen by granting my appeal. There is also a City Councilperson or two who have been working on or behalf, as well. All of that stuff will come out later.


The reason why this looks like it will be successful is that 1)this was such a basic issue, and... 2) that 375 people forced the hands of the City. When we sent out the request for people to send faxes, I figured 40 to 50 responses would be enough to make a difference. We passed 50 people within about 40 minutes. And so, you gave them no choice.


I'm Sparta... I am Ed Goppelt!

I'm Ed Goppelt!

You are Ed Goppelt. And so are you. And you. And you, too.

What am I talking about? Well, we heard from the Solicitor’s Office on Friday about the election returns issue. Specifically, they sent a letter to Ed- creator of Hallwatch and owner of the faxbank we all used. The letter said that because all the requests came from one fax machine, the Law Department was treating them as one request…

The City received at least 250 identical requests, all of which originated from your fax machine, and as such, we are treating them as one request for the purposes of our response to you.

Upon first read, I was pretty disappointed about that. Except after thinking about it for a few minutes (and especially the part that says... "for the purposes of responding..."), the rest of the letter makes clear that they are still dealing with the main problem:

…in light of the myriad of technological and security issues your request raises, the Law Department must review the request under the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act…

In other words, they are dealing with the underlying issue: that more people have requested passwords than the Commissioners' system appears ready to deal with, and so they need thirty days to come up with an answer. That is fair, and as I told them, the goal was not to force a lot of work on the Law Department, but to open election returns to everyone. In other words, I am not too upset about City lawyers not spending their time on mail merges, as long as they are actually considering the real issue.

(And, not to get too much into palace intrigue here, but much of this was made possible by the fact that City Solicitor Shelley Smith granted my appeal, overruling the Commissioners when they said they would not give me a password. Thus far, the Law Department itself has come down on the side of open government. That is a good sign, in general.)

In terms of whether I think we will get a 'win'... As Sean noted, the Philly Election site is in fact down at the moment. I am not sure if that is a coincidence, but I do know that with 350+ individual requests, people in City Hall have started to work behind the scenes to fix this.

I am cautiously optimistic that the next letter Ed (however many Ed’s there really are) gets will say that his request has been made moot, because the data is now freely available to all citizens on the City of Philadelphia website.

Fun With Numbers

Some numbers were running through my head this morning:

  • PA Democratic Registration Advantage, November 1998: 442,671.
  • PA Democratic Registration Advantage, May 2008: 1,014,052
  • Percent of Pennsylvania House Reps that are Democratic: 50.2%
  • Percent of Pennsylvania Senators that are Democratic: 42%

Dear Pennsylvania Democratic Party and activists: Get it together. A basic tie in the House and a huge GOP majority in the Senate is a sad commentary on the state of the PA Democratic party.


  • Number of passwords that the City Commissioners determined they could give out to view election returns: 150
  • The number of passwords that Vince Fumo had by himself: 10
  • The number of Philadelphia citizens who have now requested their own password within the last 5 days: 327

For those people who submitted them Friday, you should hear something by Friday (5 business days), and a final decision within thirty days.


  • Days until the November Election: 104
  • Average PA Poll Lead for Barack Obama: 9.7%
  • Number of pundits who have stated the obvious, that Barack Obama is going to kick John McCain's ass in PA: 0(?)

I am not saying we don't need to work hard here to get this done, because we do. But, as long as we do, McCain may as well not run an ad in PA.

What else is going on?

I can view election results and you cannot, suckers!

I thought I would update everyone on where things stand with the crazy notion of letting everyone see election results online.

First, a month or so ago, I appealed the City's decision to deny me a password- the decision that gave us the magical 150 person limit for viewing electronic returns. (The appeal was with the Solicitor; next step was to Court.) In that appeal I also requested additional information, including how much the City charges for access to election results, how they decide who gets passwords for free, public notice they have put out to let people know that they can ask for a password to view results, and a list of who has these magical 150 passwords.

The City broke down my request into two streams: My new request for information from the Commissioners' Office, and my appeal of the initial decision.

The first response I got back was about the new pieces of information, and largely refused to answer my questions, including how much they actually charge. However, the one piece of information they did provide was the one piece I thought they would not: a list of who has these passwords. That is mostly what the Daily News focused on: the people who have access to voting returns, while the average citizen does not. And yes, it is pretty bizarre that they deny an average citizen access to results, while giving Fumo's Office ten of 150 passwords.

Then, late last week, on the same day the Daily News story came out, the Solicitor responded to and granted my appeal, and ruled that the Commissioners Office had to give me a password.

So, the bottom line is, I have a password and you don't. Suckers! Now, I am done with this whole annoying ordeal. But, in positive news for you all, I will rent access to the password for ten dollars a day, plus four chocolate chip cookies.

Anyway, I used the magical password to log in, to see what all the fuss was about. It took about two seconds to see what the problem was/is. Basically, those 150 passwords are for users to log into the actual voting system software. No one in the public needs that- we just need them to export the data so that the public can see it. I also asked YPP user ELP to take a look at it, knowing he is a computer guy. And, as I assumed he would, ELP quickly came up with a number of fixes. Additionally, in terms of whether this is all feasible for the City to do, he pointed me to this, from the website of the company the City uses, describing the benefits of their product:

- Easy to export results to other media or systems including the World Wide Web.

Um, right.

So, where do we go from here? Well, that is coming. The granting of the appeal was an important step, but in reality, just a small one. At the end of the day, we still don't yet have public access to the results. I will have more on how you can help very soon.

Keeping Election Returns Secret

As most people know, we elect three people- the City Commissioners- that are supposed to oversee our elections. Many agree that it is a little odd that we need to elect three people, each with their respective staffs to oversee our electoral process. But, voting is sacred, and the idea of three elected officials to make sure that as many people vote as possible- and that our elections our fair and transparent- isn't such a bad one.

So, I would like to cite all the important reforms the Commissioners have made over the past few years to help as many Philadelphians vote as possible:

OK, OK, so they haven't actually done much on the whole voter thing. But, maybe I am being unfair. After all, at least they have a website where you can see election returns. I thought, for example, it would be interesting to see the results for my ward. So, straight from are the available results:

Yeah, that is right: nada. The election returns, compiled by elected officials who are paid a lot of money to run those elections, can't actually be seen, because the Commissioners keep their results password protected. Only in Philly could this happen.

Despite the absurdity of password protected election results, my YPP co-editor, Rapping Ray Murphy, actually called up the Commissioner's office and asked if he could have a password so that he could actually view results. Rambling Ray can tell you more, but, he was basically asked who he was calling with. And when he said he was a citizen, was basically scoffed at, and told he needed to put a request in writing, which would then take 20 days to respond to.

Open government is so pesky. Politicians like to talk about it, but when they are actually in office, people requesting information from them can be a real annoyance. But... election returns, in a City that pays three elected officials to oversee all of this? How much more basic can you get?

Locked out: independent voters and the PA primary

On Monday night, I got this message on my machine from a friend:
I just got my new voter registration card though the mail. I am seeing that I’m not registered with either party, And I don’t know what to do to change it. And I thought maybe you would know.
Uh-oh. I called the Commissioner’s office, just to be sure, but the deadline for changed (as well as new) registrations was definitely Monday.

As of November of 2007, there were about 100,000 registered independents on the city of Philadelphia—about 10% of all voters. Because PA has a closed primary system, none of them is going to be able to vote for Clinton or Obama, or in any other tight local race in the April 22nd election.

Even though the city is majority Democratic (by far), the number of independent voters in the city has grown by about a third since 2001. (Source: PA State voter reg data). The growth of independent voters can be attributed, in part, to the fact that more and more people our age are registering independent as a part of their distaste for party politics.

Which means in local elections, we’re losing the ability to turn out votes from a natural constituency for progressive change (young voters) because of antiquated laws. In New Jersey, and many other states, you can vote in a primary regardless of primary status. You just decide which party primary contest you want to vote in when you get to your polling place on Election Day.

This is a real problem for progressive organizing in Philadelphia. So, shouldn’t we have open primaries here? Or maybe even better, same-day voter registration?

Well, we could, but it'd require a change in state law. Rep. Babette Josephs, Chair of the State Rules Committee, is the one to talk to. Her email is While I think Jospehs is likely to be supportive of such an effort (I know there’s talk that she is working on a bill right now that would allow non-excuse absentee voting in PA), both Democratic and Republican leaders statewide may not.

As we all know from the special election process here in Philadelphia, some party leaders prefer to consolidate power by reducing participation in primary elections as much as possible.

What else can we do? Don't we all know people who have registered independently? The reality is many of them wouldn’t if they knew how much they were giving up in local elections.

Well, there are always the City Commissioners. There are three people elected in Philadelphia to oversee elections: Marge Tartaglione, Anthony Clark, and Joseph Duda. These folks have a staff and a budget. They could have been calling up non-profits and civic groups with a non-partisan message explaining the way a closed party primary election works. They also could have sent a mailing to all independent voters. They could have gone on Action News. Etc. Etc.

Their office is chartered, after all, to help by:
  • informing candidates, political party committees, the media and the general public of the voter registration and election process; and,
  • encouraging Philadelphians to register and vote.
Of course, we have talked about reforms the Commissioner’s office could implement before without much success, like:
  • The Commissioners could send a postcard in the mail or an email reminding voters about Election Day. It’s been done before, in 2004 and to some extent in 2006, but not in Primaries and not in the 05 General. That’s one way to drive up turnout.
  • Another idea: why don’t we take advantage of Wireless Philly and create a secure, online voter database so that Philadelphians could go to any polling location in the city rather than just the one in their ward and division? People live busy lives, and using technology to make tasks like voting simpler is a no-brainer.
  • Same-day voter registration is another concept that has helped boost voter turnout in other states. This will require a change in state law, but how can we ever expect a change in state law to occur if election officials in Philadelphia and other large counties don’t get more aggressive and ask for one?
  • Vote by mail, public advertising, partnering with utilities to print election info on bills (do you know how easy it would be to print your polling place location on your gas or water bill?), an updated website, and many other ideas are all available to the Commissioners to use to boost turnout.
So while it is important to hold especially Commissioner Marge Tartgalione accountable by calling her at (215) 686-3460, the reality is significant changes in Philadelphia’s voting infrastructure are not going to come from this office, or even the state.

Which like so many other problems for progressives means we need the Mayor and Council to invest some political capital in this effort.

Mayor Nutter has said he is committed to reforming not just government, but the political process in this city too, and implementing some of the changes listed above is a great way to start. We also have some “activist” members of Council now, and voting reform and voting rights issues seem like a win-win issue for all, especially as we are ramping up to a huge presidential election in the fall.

No matter where the solution comes from, fixing our voting system will create some increase in voter turnout. It won’t solve the whole problem, but when less than 50% of all Philadelphians are likely to come out and vote in April, it’s obvious that something must be done to make change.
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