Broad Based Coalition Calls for City Council to Create a new Department of Elections
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Broad Based Coalition Calls for City Council to Create a new Department of Elections


Alison Perelman, Philadelphia 3.0

David Thornburgh, Committee of Seventy

Broad Based Coalition Calls for City Council to Create a new Department of Elections
To be administered by Election Director appointed by the Mayor
with oversight by appointed, bipartisan Philadelphia Board of Elections

PHILADELPHIA, PA (May 4, 2016) – A diverse coalition of a dozen civic and community organizations known as the Better Philadelphia Elections Coalition (BPEC) today urged City Council to replace the elected City Commissioners with appointed professionals to provide the leadership necessary to modernize Philadelphia’s elections. By law, the measure would need to be signed by the Mayor and approved by City voters.

The Coalition called on City Council to create a new Department of Elections administered by a professionally-accredited Election Director appointed by the Mayor, with oversight provided by an appointed, non-salaried, and bipartisan Philadelphia Board of Elections.

“The problems with the Office of the City Commissioners--political maneuvering, ineffective and inattentive leadership, and a lack of accountability--have persisted for decades.  We need less political and more professional leadership to make our local democracy work to its greatest potential”, said Alison Perelman, Executive Director of Philadelphia 3.0, a city reform organization and one of the leaders of the Coalition.

Research into election governance and leadership in other cities and counties convinced the Coalition this proposal will position Philadelphia to achieve significant progress on six important challenges facing the local voting process:

  • Increase civic engagement. Our election officials must remove barriers to voter registration and increase voter turnout. This means notifying voters of elections by mail and social media, informing them of all options for participation, and being effective champions locally and in Harrisburg for election modernization.
  • Ensure equal access to the ballot. Our election officials must expand access to and support for voters with disabilities and those of limited English proficiency. Philadelphia has a troubling history in this regard, and in the 21st century casting a ballot can no longer be a burden for some members of our community.
  • Provide effective leadership to modernize elections. The men and women who lead our election process must be knowledgeable, responsive, and passionate about making democracy work. They need to bring national best practices to Philadelphia, and  need to be effective advocates for Philadelphia voters with other leaders across the state for overdue updates to Pennsylvania’s election laws.
  • Eliminate fraud, intimidation, and corruption from the election process. Our election officials must tackle chronically problematic polling places head-on, which will require substantial improvements to poll worker training and support.
  • Work across government to expand impact. Because the City Commissioners are independently elected, they often don’t work in concert with other city officials.  Our election officials must partner with City departments to offer voter registration opportunities, non-partisan voter education, and voting reminders as a part of service delivery.
  • Spend taxpayer dollars judiciously. Our election officials must spend tax dollars wisely. Other large Pennsylvania counties spend significantly less on their elections operations and produce better results.

David Thornburgh, CEO, Committee of Seventy, the longstanding advocate for better government, said “The elected office of City Commissioners is an obscure artifact from the past, and has never served the people well.  It’s a hidden office that costs too much—almost a half million dollars, or enough to fund Pre-K slots every year for 118 children--and it doesn’t deliver good results.  Philadelphia needs professional, progressive, accountable leadership to modernize elections and lead us into the future.”

The nonpartisan Coalition consists of the following organizations: Americans for Democratic Action, Asian Americans United, Committee of Seventy, Disability Rights Pennsylvania, Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, Fifth Square, Influencing Action Movement, Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, Philadelphia 3.0, Philly Progressive Caucus, Public Interest Law Center, SEAMAAC.  These are the first 12 organizations to step forward as members of the coalition, but the Coalition is expected to grow in coming weeks.

In addition to Perelman and Thornburgh, speakers at the Coalition’s press conference included:

  • Gabe Labella, staff attorney for Disability Rights Pennsylvania, who introduced Suzanne Erb to speak about challenges faced by her blind community, including a specific instance from April 26. Suzanne read brief remarks from Stephanie Roesner on behalf of the deaf and hearing impaired community
  • Wei Chen, Civic Engagement Coordinator for Asian Americans United, spoke about voting challenges faced by limited English proficiency (LEP) populations
  • Civic engagement leader Felicia Harris spoke about voter turnout and engagement
  • Kobe Nabried, a Science Leadership Academy student, commented on his hopes and expectations for voting engagement and modernization for young and soon-to-be voters

Dissatisfaction with the Office of the City Commissioners has been growing steadily for months. Recently, more than 1,200 citizens signed onto a petition calling for the elimination of the office, and former City Commissioner and member of City Council Marian Tasco announced her support for the proposal. For more information, and to keep up to date on the coalition’s efforts, follow the Better Philadelphia Elections Coalition on Facebook.