A vote flag on East Passyunk Avenue in November 2022. (Nathan Morris/Billy Penn)
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Last week Philadelphians learned there will be an independent poll about the Democratic mayoral primary, after weeks of chatter about the lack of one. 

An accompanying online poll is already live, showing which candidates have a strong base — not of Philly voters, but of online support. That’s an important distinction.

The scientific poll was commissioned by good government group Committee of Seventy, community nonprofit Urban Affairs Coalition, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, electoral reform advocacy group FairVote, and local news outlet The Philadelphia Citizen. 

It will survey 1,000 likely voters and could influence not only how people cast their vote at the polls, but how campaigns spend their last couple of weeks before the election. 

Results of the scientific poll were originally promised by this Friday, but it appears they could take a bit longer. 

“The exact date of the public poll results will depend on how long it takes to survey 1,000 Philadelphians, but we expect it will be early next week,” Committee of Seventy spokesperson Michelle Montalvo told Billy Penn.

Results of the online poll, while available now, probably shouldn’t influence anything.

The online survey has literally no connection to the unfolding facts of the race. A few days after publishing it, the Committee of Seventy added an all-caps, bold disclaimer to that effect:


So if someone is sending you screenshots or images of a poll that supposedly demonstrates a specific candidate’s strength, they might be trying to pull a quick one on you.

Still, the online tool — and the candidates that are showing out in the rankings — can provide some insights on the race to become Philly’s 100th mayor.

A ranked-choice poll sans a ranked-choice system

The main purpose of the online, unscientific poll, as the disclaimer notes, is to demonstrate how ranked-choice voting might work in municipal elections.

The Committee of Seventy added the disclaimer over the weekend, “based on a handful of inquiries [they] received … to emphasize that we hope people use the unscientific poll to learn about ranked choice voting and not for anything else,” according to Montalvo. 

Philly currently has a “first past the post” system, where the person with the most votes is the winner. 

Primary elections in years without federal elections have pretty low turnout — about a quarter of registered voters usually show up. In a highly contested primary like this one, where many candidates still display a strong voter base, the winner could be decided by a very small margin. And because of Philadelphia’s 7 to 1 political party imbalance, whoever wins the Democratic nomination is widely expected to win in November.

All that to say, we could be looking at a scenario where votes from fewer than 10,000 people decide who’s mayor for a city of 1.6 million. 

How would it work if we had a different system? That’s what the Committee of Seventy’s online poll shows.

The system it uses selects a winner based on which candidate ultimately ends up with a majority of all votes, 50% plus one. 

You can choose up to five candidates to vote for, placing them in order of preference from favorite to least favorite. Then you hit submit, and watch the ranked-choice voting process unfold.

The first round notes all the first-choice selections, providing an initial voter split. If no candidate has a majority, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated. Those who picked the eliminated candidate still have a say, as their second-choice candidate — or third, fourth, fifth-choice, etc., based on who they picked — receives their vote in the next round of tallying. This process of removing the least popular candidate and reallocating their votes is repeated until a winner emerges.

The results page on the online poll also helpfully walks you through some key terms associated with ranked-choice elections, like “exhausted ballots.” 

FairVote, the electoral reform group that’s part of the polling effort, also advocates for ranked-choice voting nationwide. They say the system is “the most impactful proven solution to the underlying problems that currently result in hyperpolarization and dysfunction,” and point to past and present use of ranked-choice systems to make that argument. 

So the online poll isn’t accurate… but I can’t help it, who’s winning?

For what it’s worth — and that’s not much — Rebecca Rhynhart is coming out at the top of the pack in the online survey.

What are the issues that make the result dismissable? First, the poll doesn’t even require you to live in Philly to participate, much less be a registered voter. Second, you can vote more than once. Third, it’s running under the ranked-choice system, which is not even yet legal in Pennsylvania.

From the time the poll went live last week through midday Monday, Rhynhart and Helen Gym received over 75% of the roughly 1,250 votes cast. This shows, more than anything, that the two candidates have a healthy amount of highly motivated, highly online supporters. 

Based on the chatter on Philly politics Twitter, this is not a big surprise. These are also the two candidates who’ve won endorsements from organizations that are highly active on social media themselves, from various open wards to progressive political groups like Reclaim Philadelphia and the Working Families Party. The urbanist advocacy group 5th Square endorsed both candidates

Cherelle Parker’s endorsers, who include longtime elected officials and established unions like the Building Trades Council, are less likely to participate on the web, but have been very successful in driving voters to the real-life polls.

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...