Street money

Street money 101: How, in 2014, cash still gets out the vote in Philly

Tom Wolf isn’t giving any street money to the city’s Democratic City Committee, refusing to take part in an ages-old tradition in Philadelphia. Does that mean other politicials have been buying votes? Billy Penn breaks down a political practice involving cash payments to hundreds of local political supporters that experts REALLY HOPE increases voter turnout.

What is street money?

In Philadelphia, “street money” is cash given by prominent Democratic political candidates to the City Democratic Committee. The City Democratic Committee then gives that money to ward leaders  who use it to pay their committee members. Those committee members knock on doors, give voters rides to the polls and participate in other grassroots activities on or slightly before Election Day. The cash pays those ward leaders for their work, plus expenses like lunch or coffee. There is one committee member for each of Philadelphia’s 1,688 voting divisions.

Why is this practice valuable for big-time Democratic candidates?

Philadelphia is heavily Democratic. High voter turnout in Philadelphia could help sway statewide races and the race for president in favor of Democrats.

How much do committee members get paid?

Congressman Bob Brady, chairman of the Democratic City Committee, told Billy Penn that committee members are lucky to get about $100 apiece for working on Election Day. To get $100 for each member, the Democratic City Committee would need about $170,000 in street money. Had Wolf given $340,000, each member would’ve received $200.

Street money? The name of it alone sounds shady. Is it?

Ellen Kaplan, interim president and CEO of the nonpartisan political watchdog group Committee of Seventy, said the practice of street money is legal as long as it is properly reported on campaign finance accounts. This PDF provides an example of how street money is documented.

Shady stuff has happened, though, right?

You bet. Kaplan pointed to two major problems with street money: It’s hard to account for because committee members use their cash in small increments. “Cash payments are always harder to account for,” Kaplan said. … “It’s $10 here and $5 there.” Secondly, street money is given just before the election. If something sketchy happened, nobody would find out until the all-important day is over.

There are local legends of committee members driving around with cash in their cars, handing out bills to voters. And as recently as 2001, three Democrat city ward leaders were charged by a state grand jury of improperly using and reporting street money.

Do the local Republicans ask for street money?

Not in the same way. Joseph DeFelice, executive director of the Republican City Committee, told Billy Penn that Republicans had not asked for street money from Governor Tom Corbett. He said donations to the Republican City Committee could be used for “get out the vote” activities associated with street money but added that local Republicans have been focusing more on social media and other avenues to encourage voting.

How long have political parties been using street money?

Similar tactics have been endorsed since before America was a country, according to research by Larry Sabato mentioned in a 2002 Inquirer article. Sabato said George Washington gave prospective voters 160 gallons of rum, beer and cider when he ran for the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758.

Wait, does this mean Tom Wolf will lose votes in Philly since he isn’t giving street money?

Nope. Brady said former Governor Ed Rendell had pledged around $125,000 for street money, and that the party would get funds for street money “elsewhere.”

Then does it really matter that Wolf isn’t giving any money?

Well, Obama didn’t either, in 2008. Obviously, Wolf lacks the same cache as Obama, but Kaplan told Billy Penn that most people in Philadelphia are amped up to get Corbett out of office more than they are to vote in Wolf. Last-minute reminders to vote for Wolf shouldn’t create too many ripples with local voter turnout.

Will street money be stopped anytime soon?

Probably not. This is Philadelphia. But street money is not as important as it once was. As DeFelice said, several other ways exist to get out the vote than did 10 or 15 years ago because of the rise of social media. Here’s one way to look at the decline in street money: Local Democrats asked Wolf for $340,000 for this Tuesday. In his 2002 governor’s race, Rendell gave local Democrats $740,000 in street money… just for the primary. By not offering street money, Wolf has shown that he believes there are better ways to spend his campaign funds.  

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