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The Battle is Joined at the Polls

As its first priority, Seventy worked at the base of the situation to eliminate the blatant voter fraud that was prevalent in Philadelphia elections. In contrast to other reform groups that had experienced little success because they limited their efforts to public condemnation of the Republican Machine bosses. Seventy attacked the problem at its roots on the streets of Philadelphia.

In 1905, Seventy began to monitor the polls on Election Day and helped to prosecute individuals who violated the law. Seventy hired attorney Thomas Raeburn White, an expert on election law, and proceeded to collect evidence to ensure convictions. In 1906, Raeburn White testified in Harrisburg in support of ward realignment. Seventy enjoyed early success, having over one hundred elections officers and Republican ward leaders indicted on charges ranging from stuffing the ballot box to buying votes with shots of whiskey. As a result of the prosecutions, each of the ballot box stuffers who were convicted received 2 year sentences. 

Similarly, before the Personal Registration Act of 1906, local newspapers and reformers estimated that the number of fraudulently registered voters in the city numbered between 30,000 and 80,000. These fraud votes consisted of forged signatures that included dead people, children and non-naturalized foreigners. 

In 1909, Seventy's investigations revealed that 108 policemen had violated the Election Code by standing inside polling places and, in some instances, subjected poll workers to brutal assaults and unwarranted arrests. Many of these officers were later fired. By using the existing laws to clean up elections in Philadelphia, Seventy won citywide respect and forced the Republican Machine to develop new schemes for fixing the vote. In the 1911 election, the Committee investigated more than 1,500 alleged violations of the Shern Law and filed complaints against police officers and other city employees with the appropriate head of department. Despite these efforts, no action was ever taken against the offenders. 

Seventy’s Election Day oversight was needed even more because of a giant increase in Philadelphia’s population. The city’s population had continued to grow in the 1920’s at approximately the same rate (20 percent) as it had in the early post-bellum period. This thus resulted in Philadelphia ’s population to rise from 1,000,000 in 1890 to almost 2,000,000 by 1930. In 1910, Seventy concluded an investigation regarding illegal voter assistance during the 1909 election. They also finished conducting an ongoing review of voter registration lists to strike invalid names. The Committee was able to get convictions and one year sentences for numerous violators. In addition to its efforts to clean up elections, Seventy also successfully advocated for the 1913 creation of the Philadelphia Municipal Court.

Furthermore, by 1916, the Committee had nearly 5,000 volunteers to monitor the city’s electoral processes, aided by the Committee’s offering rewards for information leading to the arrest of election law violators. The Committee also reinforced election-related legislation by sending warning letters to municipal officials. The Committee’s work was aided substantially by the inauguration of Mayor Blankenburg in 1911; Blankenburg proved much more responsive to the Committee’s agitation for reform than the previous mayor. Indeed, during Blankenburg’s term, 187 civil service employees were discharged for electoral law violations. 

Perhaps one of the highlights of the Committee’s first 20 years was its first Charter reform in 1919; the chairman of the Charter Reform Committee was Seventy’s then-chairman, John C. Winston. The 1919 charter is widely considered Philadelphia ’s first “modern” charter and was created with the intention of correcting issues such as under-representation in certain districts, and the contracting of municipal services, such as garbage collection, to private companies. The 1919 Charter revised the city council system by decreasing membership, limiting terms, and restricting council members to that single municipal position.  The charter also ensured that municipal services such as street maintenance, garbage collection, and city repairs were the responsibility of the city, and not to be assigned to individuals on contract. The punishment by fine or imprisonment for politically corrupt activities by city employees was formally documented, and municipal agencies were placed under the authority of the city’s controller and thus independent of mayoral control. The 1919 Charter also required the mayor to submit an annual budget to the City Council to be reviewed in public hearings, and instituted a Department of Social Welfare to aid individual citizens.

In essence, the 1919 Charter was designed to eliminate many of the predominant methods of political corruption such as had been the focus of the Committee since its 1904 inception.