How watchdogs want to fix Philly’s controversial elections oversight

At least, that’s what a new coalition for “Better Philadelphia Elections” is lobbying for.

Philadelphia 3.0 Executive Director Alison Perelman explains the formation of the "Better Philadelphia Elections Coalition."

Philadelphia 3.0 Executive Director Alison Perelman explains the formation of the "Better Philadelphia Elections Coalition."

Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Civic groups calling themselves the “Better Philadelphia Elections Coalition” say they finally have a plan for how to run Philadelphia elections that’s better than the current system.

A coalition of 12 groups that included Committee of Seventy, Disability Rights Network and Philadelphia 3.0 today announced they’re lobbying City Council to abolish the elected City Commissioners system in favor of a new system that would task an elections director appointed by the mayor with overseeing the process. That person would be joined by a small board of unpaid Philadelphians from both majority and minority political parties.

Committee of Seventy Executive Director David Thornburgh said the current City Commissioners that cost taxpayers more than a million dollars a year are “invisible, inefficient and unable to lead.”

“Invisible offices,” he said, “lead to a lack of accountability.”

The job of the City Commissioners, a three-person board, is to oversee the elections process in Philadelphia. Since January, the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan civic watchdog group, has called for the abolition of the City Commissioners but some city leaders expressed there wasn’t a plan in place for a better way to oversee elections.

The City Commissioners have faced increased scrutiny as of late after a series of stories detailed Democratic chairman Anthony Clark’s lax attendance record. Despite rarely being found in his office, Clark was again selected by the three-person board to serve as the chair (though Commissioner Lisa Deeley didn’t vote for chair; Commissioner Al Schmidt motioned to nominate Clark as chair and Clark seconded the motion).

Clark also drew ire after signing up for the city’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan, a controversial program the city offers that has allowed some city employees to collect pension payments in a lump sum and then, in some cases, return to work for the city.

But the Better Philadelphia Elections Coalition said the push for changes isn’t about one person. Alison Perelman, executive director of a millennial-focused PAC called Philadelphia 3.0, said “problems go well beyond one person.”

Representatives from groups like Disability Rights PA and Asian Americans United spoke to voter access issues experienced as recently as the April primary election, whether it’s difficulty in the process for voters with disabilities or language barrier problems for first-time voters in the immigrant community.

Thornburgh said advocacy groups have lobbied City Commissioners for years in addressing voter access problems with little success. He said an appointed director of elections who has a background in election administration (that’s a thing people can actually study) would be better suited to be a “single, solitary” voice for electioneering in Philadelphia. That person would ideally be a visible figure in Harrisburg, he said, in making the voting process easier and more accessible.

During the press conference, a member of the audience expressed concern that though the Philadelphia population is more than half black, the people in the coalition were overwhelmingly not. Thornburgh responded, saying the group is “broad and diverse” while Gabe Labella, a staff attorney of Special Education Intake, said it’s “not a black and white issue.”

Members of the coalition are in private conversations with members of City Council but have not yet announced if or which council member would be willing to introduce legislation that would call for the abolition of the City Commissioners system. If a bill of that nature were to pass City Council, the final decision would go to voters via a ballot question.

The following groups are involved in the coalition: Americans for Democratic Action, Asian Americans United, Committee of Seventy, Disability Rights Network, Economy League, Fifth Square, Influencing Action Movement, Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, Philadelphia 3.0, Philly Progressive Caucus, Public Interest Law Center, SEAMAAC.

Current City Commissioner Al Schmidt was in attendance at a Wednesday press conference announcing the formation of the coalition, but he left before talking to press.

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