Beware the sample ballot: The outsized influence of Philly’s wards in next week’s primary

If you’re voting in next week’s primary, it’s likely you know everything you need to know about Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich. Elsewhere on the ballot, if you’re a Democrat, you’ll get to vote for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House, too. Challengers Dwight Evans, Joe Sestak and the others aren’t as well known as the presidential candidates, but their commercials have been all over the airwaves. Their races have been chronicled in local and national media. You might have even heard of the two main candidates competing for attorney general, Stephen Zappala and Josh Shapiro.

But what about a bunch other names you’ll see? Marni Snyder. John Sabatina. Matthew Darragh. They are among the dozens of people most voters have likely never heard about. They’re running for state senate or state representative. Some of them are longtime incumbents. Some are new challengers. Some might have popped up in a TV ad, but their races are largely conducted in anonymity while everyone pays attention to the national campaigns. The first time voters might see one of their names is on the ballot — or the sample ballot handed out at polling locations before they go into the voting booth. As a result, these state senate and state house races, perhaps more than any other, illustrate the remaining strengths of Philadelphia’s infamous ward system. Longtime political consultant and president of The Campaign Group Neil Oxman calls these “low information” races.

“And when that happens,” he said, “that’s about a committee person handing you a piece of paper.”

How wards work

Philadelphia is divided into 66 wards. Each ward is sectioned off into 10 to 50 divisions, and the city has a total of about 1,700 divisions. Most of the talk about wards these days deals with street money and get-out-the-vote operations for major races like governor and president. But turnout for local races is often overrated because the Republican Party is irrelevant in all but a few parts of the city. The Democrats are going to win Philadelphia no matter what.

The wards’ most important function for politics in Philadelphia is less getting out the vote than selecting a certain candidate (and then getting out the vote for that candidate). The committee people within a particular ward decide which candidate a ward will endorse. The wards can then caucus together and if they reach an agreement, the city’s Democratic Party, led by congressman Bob Brady, will endorse the candidate. At polling locations, committee people or volunteers will hand out sample ballots that feature their endorsed candidate as the person to vote for in each given race.

When ward endorsements matter

Wards generally endorse candidates for president, governor, Congress and mayor, but their endorsements don’t go far. The general population is better informed about those races, and the size of the electorate — the entire city — can offset the advantages a wards’ endorsements give a candidate. In 2007, for instance, Michael Nutter won the mayoral election with support from only a handful of the 66 wards.

The state senate and state representative races involve small slices of the city. About 15,000 to 20,000 votes are cast in primary state senate races in Philly. The number for primary state house races is usually less than 5,000. Compare that to about 175,000 votes cast in Philadelphia for the last Democratic US Senate primary in 2010.

As in every election, the largest population that votes for state senate and state representative races tends to be older people. They’ve often lived in their neighborhoods for decades and built relationships with the committee people who’ve held their positions for a long time.

“On questions not mayor or senator or governor,” says Sam Katz, a Philadelphia historian and two-time mayoral candidate, “they take a sample ballot from the person they trust who’s maybe helped with parking tickets or done something to help their kid get into community college.”

In races where only a few thousand people vote, 100 votes can swing an entire election. That’s what happened in the 202nd District, where longtime incumbent Mark Cohen edged out challenger Jared Solomon by 118 votes in 2014. Cohen’s name, as it has been for years, was on the most of the sample ballots.

Incumbents like Cohen almost always get ward support, unless they do something to piss off the party leaders (perhaps Cohen has. Ward leaders are favoring Solomon in this year’s election after years of supporting Cohen). Brian Sims, for instance, angered the party by running against the incumbent Babette Josephs in 2012. He won and repeated in 2014 but is still somewhat of an enemy of the party. The 5th Ward and 8th Ward in his district endorsed one of his opponents, Ben Waxman.

“I think the Democrats, which are what matters, have a circle-the-wagons kind of mentality that keeps people in office who have been loyal to the ward system and the Democratic Committee,” Katz said. “That loyalty has become much more important than legislative effectiveness.”

How Philly politicians get elected

Strongly organized wards and elections with low voter turnout have turned the state senate and state representative races into foregone conclusions. Of the 28 officials representing Philadelphia as state senators or state reps, only five won their seat by actually defeating an incumbent. The rest rose to power after someone died, resigned retired or was indicted. These candidates have generally been able to succeed by getting union support or pulling off miracles by marketing themselves door-to-door in the districts they want to represent.   

Newcomers to politics often wonder why Philadelphia, unlike most other big cities, has a ward system. Other than because it generally helps those in power stay in power, the answer has to do with organization. Philadelphia has been divided into wards since the 19th century. This system is basically the only way the city has been organized for elections.

How can we change the ward system?

Any change to the ward system, according to the Office of the City Commissioners, involves approval from City Commissioners, Council and the courts. The elimination of the ward system would likely require the same and would need an unprecedented political movement. Why would people in power — most of whom are benefitting from the ward system — want to change it?

Katz said the dissolution of wards will likely only come from technology. If people were able to vote online, there would no longer even be a practical need for the city to be divided up for elections as it is now.

“Because you could vote from your computer,” he said. “You could vote from Florida, your house. You would just vote. Sooner or later that’s going to happen. It’ll just be part and parcel of the dissolution of the influence of the parties.”

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