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The fate of Philadelphia rested with a small brown-and-orange tin Wednesday morning.
That’s what it felt like as nervous and excited chatter filled City Hall’s Room 202, with prospective elected officials and their representatives milling around a low table holding the “coffee can of destiny.”
Drawing numbers from a Horn & Hardart brand container to determine the order candidates appear on the election ballot is one of the city’s decades-old political traditions. State law mandates the random drawing of lots to determine name placement, and in Philly, this is how it’s done.
“It’s an imperfect process, but it’s a process that everybody is participating in equally,” Job Itzkowitz, candidate for City Council at large, told Billy Penn as he waited his turn.
The can itself holds meaning to Itzkowitz. The executive director of the Old City District, he was born and raised in Philadelphia and said he often visited the City Avenue location of the Horn & Hardart automat as a child. Even so, he advocated for a randomized process rather than have the order determined by the tin.
Studies show ballot placement can play a large role in electoral success, with candidates who appear earlier often getting a bump in vote share.
Not everyone appreciates the idiosyncrasy.
Mayoral candidate and former Councilmember Allan Domb said flat out he’d eliminate the quirky custom.
“As mayor, I’ll toss the coffee can. My ethics plan calls for random rotation of candidates’ ballot positions across the city,” Domb posted on Twitter shortly before Wednesday’s drawing began.
Imam Salaam Muhsin, a proxy drawer for Sheriff Rochelle Bilal, who is running for reelection, held the opposite sentiment.
“I think it might be the best way, because you don’t want individuals of power to select positions on the ballot,” Muhsin said
Prior to the drawing, the room was abuzz with greetings, small talk, and schmoozing, with candidates familiarizing themselves with old and new friends, colleagues, and competitors. Candidates, their families, aides, and other onlookers gathered in swarms, staring nervously at the coffee can surrounded with red and blue raffle balls, waiting to be placed inside.
“It’s my first time [being here] … I’m feeling excited,” Boogie Rose, a District 2 Council candidate, told Billy Penn. The candidate brushed shoulders with at-large contender Abu Edwards and went up to take some pictures of the tin that would soon determine her ballot position.
Shortly after 11 a.m., the drawing kicked off, beginning with the Office of the Mayor. As names were called, candidates or a proxy approached the small yet commanding canister and plucked out a ball.
Laughter filled the room when mayoral contender John Wood, a relative unknown, picked the coveted No. 1 spot.
Former Councilmember Cherelle Parker pulled position No. 2 on the mayoral list. “That’s iconic. That’s history in the making,” murmured someone in the audience.
Multiple candidates brought their children to the can with them, including councilmember at-large candidate Amanda McIlmurray, Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, and City Commissioner Seth Bluestein.
From cheers to groans, the atmosphere was informal and light, yet underpinned with a hint of anxiety and tension.
“A lot of it is in God’s hands,” said Rose, speculating that in the end, candidate strength and platform would be the deciding factor. “We’re going to do what we can … so that people know that we’re here to make changes in District 2. This coffee can isn’t even going to matter.”
Ballot positions for the May 16 election
Here’s how the ballot will be ordered for the various municipal positions up for a primary vote, via the Office of City Commissioners.
Candidates could still be knocked off if a challenge to their signature petitions is successful. Ballots should be finalized by the end of March, at which point the Office of the City Commissioners will design and print them, and then start sending out mail ballots to voters who’ve requested them.