With a week until Election Day, political ads and signs are so ubiquitous they almost fade into the background, but one graphic popping up all over Philly has been catching attention.
“STOP THE RACISTS,” the signs say. “VOTE NOV. 8TH.”
A disclaimer at the bottom, required on political signage, reads “Paid for by Philadelphia Votes.”
The organization name doesn’t show up as an officially registered political action committee. A connected social media account uses the City of Philadelphia logo, but the group is not government-affiliated, a city spokesperson confirmed. A website wearing the organization name gives few additional hints — but seems to be run by a few local students.
The signs have sparked a lot of curiosity, and inspired social media comments both positive and negative.
Political strategist Melissa Robbins, who ran for City Council at large in 2019, said she saw the signs, and — along with wanting to know more — appreciated the message.
“It needs to be known. We have to stop racism,” Robbins said.
Upon learning a student group may have been behind them, she added, “I would say to them go into the neighborhoods where racism is most prevalent… Keep beating those drums louder and louder and louder.”
💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.
The signs have been spotted in various locations, including West Philly, Old City, and Center City. In several areas, they blanket the streets, appearing on every pole along the sidewalk.
Conveying a clear, meaningful message in just four or six words is difficult, said Vicki Miller, a leader for Indivisible Philadelphia, a progressive group working on voter mobilization. Messaging to voters is often deeply analyzed, and that doesn’t seem to be the case here, she said. She still believes the signs could inspire voters to act, especially because there are so many of them.
“In general, when somebody sees something all the time, it’s going to get into their head,” Miller said.
So who is behind the effort?
Philadelphia Votes appears to have a website, philly-votes.com. The website copy is a bit of a head-scratcher, suggesting that the organization will be established next year [sic]:
Started by our dedicated and visionary leaders back in 2023, Philadelphia Votes has grown into an impactful Political+Movement. We emphasize transparency in everything we do, setting bold goals and pursuing a clear strategy that seeks to move the needle. We are constantly growing and adapting to the changes of society, and invite you to learn more about how you can make an impact.
Domain records show the URL was registered in March of this year (it’s currently 2022, for those unsure), but don’t reveal who owns it.
The @phillyvoters Instagram account linked from the website, which has 90 followers and 13 posts, contains a phone number and email address, to which Billy Penn’s call and email were not returned. It uses a screengrab of the city’s logo as its profile picture, including the motto coined a little over a decade ago: “Life. Liberty. And You.”
Laila Sadat, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, said the administration has engaged the city Law Department to ask the org to stop using the logo, because “it creates confusion.” However, she added, “we appreciate any efforts to increase civic engagement and voter participation.
A @phillyvoters post from February identifies the group’s leaders as Anthony Quarles, Jacob Kukes, Courtney Martin and Idara Baptiste, and describes them as students.
A post from March shows Quarles speaking at an event for Black business owners held by the Philadelphia Police Department’s 16th District. The 16th district posted about Quarles’ participation on Twitter a few days prior. A community outreach officer for the district did not respond to a request for comment.
A Linktree in @phillyvoters’ Instagram bio provides links to several voting rights organizations, and a Google form for prospective “members.” Per the form, the group’s “four pillars” are providing civic education; fostering community/democratic engagement; encouraging legislative advocacy; and supporting voting reform.
The Google form page repeats similar mantras, stating, “Philly Votes is a volunteer-centered and non-partisan coalition dedicated to increasing civic engagement and improving voter turnout for Philadelphia residents.”
Pennsylvania’s Department of State registration system does include records for a committee called “Philly Vote,” but it has no link to the “Stop the Racists” signs, chair Richard Smith told Billy Penn.
Searching campaign finance records for other variations of the group’s name, Philly Votes, Philadelphia Votes, Philadelphia Votes! US, or Philly Votes US — all of which are names used on the organization’s social media — brings up no results. Nor are they registered as a PAC with the Philadelphia City Commissioners, said Deputy Commissioner Nick Custodio.
While the name closely resembles the Commissioners’ former website domain, philadelphiavotes.com, that was recently removed and redirected to vote.phila.gov, Custodio added.
The group’s repeated nonpartisan claim might raise questions about whether it’s affiliated with signs of a very similar design. Seen in several areas, these signs read: “DEFEND CHOICE, VOTE DEMOCRAT.”
Whatever inspired Quarles, Kukes, and Martin — or whoever the group’s founders are — local political organizers are impressed.
“I give them all the credit in the world for getting out and doing this. I don’t know how in the world they get these signs up so high,” said Miller, of Indivisible Philadelphia. “This could be more effective than other things — I don’t know.”