A discarded Democratic City Committee sample ballot after Election Day

After every election, thousands of sample ballots litter the unswept streets of Philadelphia, seemingly without purpose. Just hours prior, those same scraps of paper were imbued with power.

Handed out by campaign workers in hopes of swinging votes in their candidate’s direction, these mock-up endorsement sheets are a hard-to-quantify force in the matrix of factors that influence results on Election Day.

But one thing about sample ballots is certain: The city’s Democratic machine is still strong when it comes to electing its endorsed candidates, but it’s not what it used to be. Rescinded endorsements, factions within certain wards, voters bucking the party’s recommendations — there’s a lot happening beneath these paper slips.

Campaigns continue to pay big money to ensure their candidate’s names are on as many ballots as possible.

Do they even matter? It appears voters think so, even if they don’t end up swaying any decisions. When Billy Penn and WHYY asked voters to send in sample ballots for the May primary election, we received hundreds of submissions. They came from various wards, political action committees, unions and even the candidates themselves.

Our collection isn’t a big enough pool to say anything definitive, but there were parts of the city where the paper ballot clearly served as a guiding light — and others where it arguably did not.

The weird, the wonderful and the influential

Sample ballots are a mixed bag. Any person or group can print their own and distribute copies around town, so long as they indicate who’s paying for the materials and file the requisite campaign finance report with the city and state.

Rendell’s ‘cut here’ letter

Democratic heavyweights — from retired City Councilmember Marian Tasco to former Gov. Ed Rendell — put their clout behind certain candidates each year. Rendell’s personalized primary ballot this time came in the form of a letter addressed to “my fellow Democrats.” The mailer was reportedly funded by more than a dozen candidates’ campaigns that got the Rendell bump.

The spend had mixed results. Fewer than half of Rendell’s 14 primary recommendations got the nod from voters.

Various candidates with large outreach teams also made their own ballots to distribute. Politically like-minded candidates paid out thousands of dollars to get their names on each other’s slates.

E-Z ballot?

There were also some unique designs this year — like a “bingo” game found in the Northeast, presenting voters with a grid of candidates’ numbers, sans names. It was reportedly paid for by the Friends of the Northeast PAC, a consortium of Democratic ward leaders. The groups took nearly $110,000 from various candidate campaigns to boost their efforts, which were then doled out to various Northeast political bosses for “GOTV” work, campaign finance records show.

Tax abatement shade

Other oddities? As a joke on Election Day, self-described “rowhouse person” Nat Lownes posted a picture of his own ballot on Twitter, listing five City Council candidates who opposed the 10-year tax abatement.

“I made the ballot spontaneously a few hours before the polls closed ’cause I finished some work early and thought it was funny,” Lownes said, “but also because the tax abatement is trash and those five candidates say they support completely ending it.”

Less grease in the Democratic machine

The most common (and coveted) ballots are those of the Democratic City Committee and its leaders in the city’s 66 political wards. Traditionally, each party-endorsed candidate pays the committee $35,000 to go toward printing the ballots and paying the street workers who distribute them. Additionally, some candidates pay thousands in “consulting fees” to ward leaders and party bosses to curry extra favor.

But analysis of our ballot pool suggests the political machine is not as reliably greased as it used to be — especially in low-information races, where voters are thought to be more likely to rely on party recommendations.

Register of Wills shocker

Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of outgoing Register of Wills Ronald Donatucci.

Despite his name appearing on party ballots all across the city, the 40-year incumbent lost to the relatively unknown Tracey Gordon. Donatucci’s office is stacked with ward leaders and committee people — but even his biggest allies couldn’t deliver votes for him. He even lost the vote in Democratic party chairman Bob Brady’s ward. Tracey gleaned the majority vote in all but two wards in Donatucci’s native South Philly.

West Philly upset

A similar story unfolded in West Philadelphia, where political newcomer Jamie Gauthier defeated Jannie Blackwell despite the party’s strong backing of the incumbent.

Most official Democratic ballots in West Philadelphia bore Blackwell’s. But Gauthier, who had support from independent political action committees and a few University City party leaders, prevailed in six of the district’s nine wards.

Wards no help to sheriff

With no top-down endorsement from the party, Democratic ward leaders were free to make their own endorsement in the sheriff’s race.

Many still backed Jewell Williams, despite his looming sexual harassment scandal, but clearly not enough. Even with his name pushed out on party literature throughout six wards in Northeast Philly — where Williams also had the backing of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5 — Bilal won the majority of votes. On the other hand, the half a dozen wards that endorsed Bilal on their ballots voted decisively in her favor.

Party still wins

This isn’t to say the Democratic party ballot didn’t help deliver votes in other races.

All five City Council at-large candidates endorsed by the Democratic City Committee emerged victorious in their crowded field. Same goes for the two party-backed candidates for City Commissioner, and three of the party’s six picks for the Court of Common Pleas.

The 50th Ward Democratic ballot in Northwest Philly

Ballots don’t pack the same punch

Colossal caveat: There are a ton of other factors to consider interacting with the ward position. The race and gender of candidates, television advertising, media attention, campaign strategy, the ballot position lottery — and of course, money.

But if sample ballots have anything conclusive to offer, it is that not all wards carry the same clout.

Powerful wards have both influential leaders and a high number of dedicated voters who turn out in every election. Candidates endorsed by these wards appear far more likely to swing that district.

Voters in the powerful 50th Ward in the Northwest, for example, cast their choices pretty closely aligned to the ward’s recommendations. The 50th ballot endorsed both Williams for Sheriff and Donatucci for Register of Wills. While both candidates lost citywide, they clinched decisive victories in the 50th.

There’s also a case to be made about the old-guard wards that have been claimed by new leadership. South Philly’s 1st and 2nd Wards, both of which have new ward leaders who are part of progressive groups in Philadelphia, endorsed near-identical candidates through a democratic voting process. All but one candidate listed on their ballots won the majority vote in those sections, where Democratic turnout was a lofty 40 percent.

Mutiny in the ranks?

While many ward leaders simply follow the party’s orders, others prefer their democracy to be hyperlocal, vetting and endorsing their own candidates with the help of their committee people.

And not all committee people agree with their ward leaders — just ask Councilmember Cindy Bass.

Bass runs the high-turnout 22nd Ward in the Northwest. But nearly a dozen of the that ward’s committee people have developed their own “open caucus” for making endorsements. Why? They say their ward leader doesn’t care about their input when it comes to the ballot.

“Whatever sample ballot was basically put out by Cindy Bass herself,” said committee person Michael Swayze. “None of her officers had any input on the ballot.”

So Swayze and other committee people backed their own set of candidates as the “22nd Ward Open Caucus.” Did their candidates do better? In some cases, yes. In some, no. Four of the five City Council at-large candidates endorsed by the caucus took the majority vote in Swayze’s ward. Kahlil Williams and Jen Devor, Democratic city commissioner candidates who lost the citywide vote, took the majority vote in this one division.

Some observers say the independent ward voting model has gained more clout in recent years.

“The wards where it’s not just the ward leader making decisions can certainly deliver,” said Larry Ceisler, principal at Ceisler Media and Issue Advocacy. “The chances are when they do it that way, it’s more reflective of the political tastes of the votes.”

The sample ballots we collected are available on a Google Photos album.

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...