This 'caffeine genie' Horn & Hardart can is how ballot position is officially decided in Philadelphia

The caffeine genie of Philly politics hath spoken.

Dozens of candidates running in the 2019 municipal elections drew numbers from an old Horn & Hardart coffee can to determine the order their names will appear on the May 21 ballot. It’s contentious, decades-old ritual in Philadelphia election cycles, but state law mandates the random drawing of lots.

What’s the big deal? Research shows ballot position can actually determine the outcome of the race.

The drawing means less for the mayor’s race this year, where only three Dems are vying for the city’s top post. But in the crowded races where voters don’t get to know each candidate, the short straw can make or break your campaign’s shot at success.

“Never mind your merits as a candidate,” said political consultant Mustafa Rashed. “A high drawing can take someone who’s not a viable and move them up the chain — and vice versa.”

It’s worth noting that the design of the actual ballot (think: rows and columns) hasn’t yet been finalized, which will add an aesthetic factor some say could further alter your luck. Several candidates are also facing petition challenges that could get them knocked off the ballot in the coming days.

Still, this year’s drawings have a big (arguably bad) impact for the judicial races, where 40-some candidates are vying for seven seats, as well as the City Council at-large race, where 34 people vying for seven available seats.

The number on red lottery ball wields the full range of human emotion, from ecstasy to numbness to sorrow. There were groans; there were celebrations.

Ballot layout matters

How big of a difference does ballot position make? Just ask former City Councilman Wilson Goode Jr., who drew the last place on the ballot back in 2015 and lost his sixth reelection bid. Goode, the son of a former mayor, had citywide name recognition and decades of experience in elected office under his belt. How much did his dead-last position impact his shot at reelection for his sixth term?

In a recent interview with the The Inquirer, Goode blamed the layout of the ballot rather than his last-place drawing. On the 2015 primary ballot, for example, Council’s 16 Democratic candidates were separated into columns with no more than two or three names in them. A four-column format — as happened in the 2011 Council race, where Goode also drew the unlucky last place spot — creates a different effect for the voter.

Whether you appear at the top of one column or the bottom of another, or whether your name will be shoved off the far right corner of the ballot of lumped in a tighter center, can have a psychological effect when voters make their choice.

Credit: 2015 primary ballot layout for City Council at-large

“An aesthetically pleasing layout could make a difference,” said Rashed, the consultant.

Philly’s current voting machines can present a maximum of ten columns, according to Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio. Ballot questions have a huge impact on how much space can be allotted to each race. The commissioners’ election specialist will lay out the design and bring it to the board; if there are any concerns he’ll let the deputy commissioners know. (There can’t be fewer than two candidates per columns — no orphans off in a column.)

Of course, drawing a high position isn’t a guarantee you’ll attract support. Comparable elections in the past have fielded first-column candidates who scored dismally on election day. Your campaign needs to have some credibility within the political establishment for ballot position to change fortune in your favor, insiders say.

Candidates may still get booted

The layout won’t be finalized until mid-April when petition challenges have been finalized, according to the City Commissioner’s Office.

“They wait as long as possible to design the ballots because there are a number of late withdrawals and objection cases that can drag on for weeks through the court system,” Custodio said.

Tuesday was the filing deadline to challenge petitions. Candidates for office had to submit 1,000 valid signatures from registered voters in their party — 750 for district Council races — but candidates have historically gotten kicked off the ballot for a number of reasons.

More than 40 Democrats, including Council President Darrell Clarke and Councilman Mark Squilla, were hit with legal challenges this week.

2019 City Council at-large ballot positions


Position 1
Candidate: Adrian Rivera Reyes
Reaction: “I’m still trying to process this,” Rivera Reyes said. “It’s pretty good. I’m proud, I’m happy and this just means I have to fight harder.”

Position 2
Candidate: Deja Lynn Alvarez

Position 3
Candidate: Helen Gym (incumbent)

Position 4
Candidate: Willie Floyd Singletary (Update: Singletary has since been removed from the ballot)
Reaction: The room gasped and groaned when Singletary drew the coveted fourth spot. “Oh my god.”

Position 5
Candidate: Ogbanna Paul Hagins
Reaction: “Outstanding,” Hagins said. “I almost didn’t even come today, I was just going to let it play out.”

Position 6
Candidate: Fernando Treviño-Martinez
Reaction: “
I’m proud to be running to bring a voice to everyone and for the opportunity to be the first immigrant elected to our city council.”

Position 7
Candidate: Eryn Santamoor

Position 8
Candidate: Joseph A. Diorio

Position 9
Candidate: Hena Veit

Position 10
Candidate: Billy Thompson

Position 11
Candidate: Beth Finn

Position 12
Candidate: Latrice Y. Bryant

Position 13
Candidate: Allan Domb (incumbent)

Position 14
Candidate: Katherine Gilmore Richardson

Position 15
Candidate: Erika Almirón
Reaction: “We’re just gonna run a good campaign,” Almirón said.

Position 16
Candidate: Mike Stack

Position 17
Candidate: Sherrie Cohen
Reaction: “It’s a great number — and it’s my ward number — and [age] 17 was a good year for me. This is an issue-driven race and I have plenty of name recognition,” Cohen said.

Position 18
Candidate: Bobbie Curry

Position 19
Candidate: Isaiah Thomas

Position 20
Candidate: Vinny Black

Position 21
Candidate: Wayne Edmund Dorsey

Position 22
Candidate: Edwin Santana

Position 23
Candidate: Mark Ross
Reaction: “Lemme kiss my cross,” Ross said as he pulled his lottery number.

Position 24
Candidate: Devon Cade

Position 25
Candidate: Melissa Robbins

Position 27
Candidate: Sandra Dungee Glenn

Position 28
Candidate: Derek Green (incumbent)
Reaction: Room fills with “oooof” after Green drew his number. (He got the No. 1 spot last time around).

Position 29
Candidate: Janice Tangradi

Position 31
Candidate: Justin DeBerardinis
Reaction: “Better at the back than in the middle, because you’ll know exactly where to find me. But I think there were some people whose campaigns were completely built around getting lucky today, you know? And that’s not us. That’s not the type of campaign we’re running…I wouldn’t rather had three or one [laughs].”

Position 32
Candidate: Fareed Abdullah

Position 33
Candidate: Asa Khalif
Reaction: “Blessed. It’s not about the numbers game… it’s about your reputation in the community.”

Position 34
Candidate: Ethelind Baylor


Position 1
Candidate: Al Taubenberger (incumbent)

Position 2
Candidate: Dan Tinney

Position 3
Candidate: Matt Wolfe

Position 4
Candidate: Bill Heeney

Position 5
Candidate: David Oh (incumbent)

Position 6
Candidate: Drew Murray

Position 7
Candidate: Irina Goldstein

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...