Much of the political power in Philadelphia still resides in the ward system. Want to run for Municipal Court judge? Sheriff? City Council? Most elected offices in the city aren’t attainable without working through the wards. The city is divided into 69, each with Democratic and Republican ward leaders elected by partisan committeepeople. These folks are the infrastructure of Philly’s oft-mentioned political machinery.
The Committee of Seventy was founded in 1904 with the express purpose of combating machine politics. We’re still not fans. But it’s worth noting that committeepeople and ward leaders can play an important role in informing voters, supporting qualified candidates and getting out the vote – benefits dependent on whether a ward is open, transparent and democratic, which most are not.
The significant influence wielded through the ward system comes largely from candidate endorsements made by the parties’ City Committees and in each ward. These endorsements are communicated to voters in the form of “sample ballot” flyers distributed outside the polls every Election Day. This is perfectly legal and can be quite helpful for voters seeking guidance. But with a ballot full of low-profile offices and unfamiliar names (39 local judicial candidates are running in the May 16 primary for eleven slots), many voters rely entirely on these party-suggested candidates. A recent Econsult analysis suggests party endorsement – especially when it’s ward-specific – is a powerful factor in determining victors for local judicial seats. (Ballot position is the other influential variable, a topic for another day.)
Candidates’ demand for a limited supply of sample ballot slots creates a lucrative market. Local judicial candidates spent $4 million during the May 2015 primary, most of it flowing through the ward system. As one candidate admitted: “The path to victory is the party endorsement and a good ballot position and a lot of money to spread around to ward leaders and consultants who can get you on as many ballots throughout the city as possible.” Such transactions don’t occur everywhere, but as veteran journo Tom Ferrick highlighted during the 2015 municipal elections, they’re fairly pervasive.
So where does civic hacking come in?
PhillyWardLeaders.com was created in 2015 as part of Code for Philly’s Apps for Democracy hackathon and is the best online resource on ward politics in the city. The app features ward leader profiles, committeeperson lists, voter turnout data and a 101 on how partisan wards work. It’s also a case in point for how products that emerge from this year’s Civic Engagement Launchpad can confer enormous benefits on Philadelphia’s civic life. And as the products mature, the benefits grow. The following are just a few of the exciting ways PhillyWardLeaders 2.0 could provide even greater transparency around the ward system and how it operates.
1) Transparency around candidate support
Shedding more light on ward spending and sample ballots will help bring aboveboard what could be described as a black market for campaign support. With help from the Board of Ethics – which is working to ensure broader compliance with campaign finance reporting rules – ward expenditures could be integrated into each ward profile page. Printing sample ballot and compensating committeepeople and others to get-out-the-vote are legitimate expenses, but they must be disclosed. Unfortunately, most wards don’t comply with city campaign finance disclosure laws. Even the simple indication of whether a ward files campaign finance reports would be valuable data. Meanwhile, a tool to crowdsource pictures of sample ballots handed out during the May 2017 primary is already being developed – one of the projects in this year’s Civic Engagement Launchpad.
Online access to these ballots and ward spending data in each election would be game changers for how candidates allocate their resources and how wards contemplate endorsements. In fact, political startup Jefferson’s List hopes to make a profit in this area, providing data on the performance of political consultants and diminishing the asymmetrical-info risks of the “I know a guy” approach. Again, see Ferrick.
2) Open and democratic ward committees
Technically, major party voters get a say in the ward system when they vote for committeepeople every four years. And committeepeople technically get a say as to which candidates end up on wards’ sample ballots. But the extent to which ward leaders allow thorough deliberation and open votes on endorsements varies widely across the city. A few wards even let committeepeople break from the ward ballot if they wish, distributing their own list of preferred candidates; this is rare.
It’s ultimately up to the voters and committeepeople in any given ward to determine how that ward functions. Committeepeople elect the ward leader and other officers several weeks after they themselves are elected (which will happen next in May 2018), so they have power to exercise.
Encouraging the more open wards to post their policies, procedures or other guidance on how they operate online is an opportunity to share best practices (e.g. tactics for informing voters and boosting turnout). It could also provide leverage for committeepeople in “closed” wards to apply pressure on their ward leader to do things differently. Furthermore, the platform could provide an assessment of the wards by indicating whether each ward holds regular meetings, allows committeepeople to vote on endorsements, and fills committeeperson vacancies; these functions are the best basic measures for a ward’s openness and effectiveness and should be easy to crowdsource.
3) Accessible party representatives
Democratic City Committee is notoriously difficult for voters to contact. The Philly GOP is marginally better, providing ward leader numbers, emails and a few pictures and social media links. The only committeeperson lists for either party are PDFs that provide only addresses.
That said, a thin online presence doesn’t mean these party reps are trying to be invisible to the general public – many are civic or community leaders who work tirelessly for their neighborhoods. When PhillyWardLeaders.com first launched, many reached out to share their contact information, offer feedback and help flag glitches in the site.
The ward leader profiles in place are terrific. The next major upgrade could include a system to maintain updated committeeperson lists with phone, email and social media contacts. With four-year terms, committeepeople slots turnover constantly. It’s a fair bet that no up-to-date list of ward leaders and committeepeople for the city has ever existed. PhillyWardLeaders.com would have the first.
Hacking for democracy
At their best, wards have active committeepeople who deliberate on candidate endorsements, vigorously get out the vote and are readily accessible to the community. The process through which they make decisions and operate is democratic and transparent. Longtime committeeperson Karen Bojar explores the problems and promise of ward politics in “Green Shoots of Democracy,” arguing that it can indeed be “an honorable civic project.” PhillyWardLeaders.com helps us get there.
Meanwhile, a host of other Code for Philly projects are being developed to impact for the better how politics and power work in the city.
Leverage, which seeks to put campaign-finance data in the hands of voters, has this aim. So does Open Seat Finder, which could help political newbies run for office, and RCO, a website to help people connect with their local Registered Community Organization.
For those looking a few years ahead, like the folks working on Anti-gerrymandering, the redistricting process to take place after the 2020 Census deserves every ounce of intense attention and engagement we can muster. The Azavea-powered FixPhillyDistricts endeavor of 2011 is widely credited with improved City Council boundaries. It should be replicated in 2021. At the state-level, Committee of Seventy is planning a similar Draw the Lines campaign targeting legislative and Congressional boundaries. Civic-hacking types from around the Commonwealth will be needed at the frontlines.
Six teams are gearing up for the Civic Engagement Launchpad’s Project Demo Night on April 25. I’d recommend coming out for the show.
Pat Christmas is the Policy Program Manager at Committee of Seventy, where he is responsible for managing Seventy’s policy analysis, advocacy campaigns and civic-related programming. Founded in 1904, Committee of Seventy is an independent and nonpartisan advocate for better government in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.