ELECTION FROM HELL: City Commission Survives A Remarkable Year

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BY TONY WEST/ In most years, the Philadelphia City Commission is a slightly sleepy agency charged with doing the same thing over and over: run two elections a year.

Change began last fall, however, when the Commission’s legendary Chairwoman Marge Tartaglione, who had run the office for 32 years, was herself turfed out of office. Two unusual new Commissioners were chosen for the three-member body, Democrat Stephanie Singer and Republican Al Schmidt. Both were bright young immigrants to the city, with experience in their respective parties’ City Committee leadership and a yen for reform. Many observers hoped the two would bring a fresh perspective to the office. Joined by incumbent Democrat Commissioner Anthony Clark, the three elected Singer as their new Chairwoman and vowed to do work well together.

What happened instead was a wild ride. This year’s Nov. 6 general election turned into a toboggan down to hell.

Half of it was bad luck. In 2012, a national Republican campaign to impose voter photo-ID laws swept through every State that had fallen under Republican control – and Pennsylvania was among this number. Harrisburg rushed this measure through and Gov. Tom Corbett signed it in March, thoroughly diverting the new Philly team’s attention from its merry dreams of a New Day. They did indeed get a New Day; but it was someone else’s New Day, not theirs.

The voter-ID law sparked a firestorm of resistance by Democrats, who saw it as a move to suppress their numbers by making it harder for some of their core constituencies – students, elders, minorities – to vote. They retaliated with complaints and lawsuits. Corbett’s State Dept. Secretary Carol Aichele and staff played defense with a bewildering flurry of contradictory announcements on new voter-ID policies every week or so. In the end, Republican Judge Robert Simpson ruled the new law was just too hard to implement in time for November.

But the protracted struggle took its toll on the City Commission (as it did on other county commissions around the state).

“Voter ID was passed, it was challenged, it was stayed,” Schmidt said. “Every time there was a new twist, it caused whiplash. We had to keep redoing the training materials, the registration forms, the absentee ballots. We kept shooting at a moving target.”

This stressed the Commission’s full-time staff of 100, most of whom are career civil servants. “Half the year we are overstaffed, the other half understaffed,” explained Schmidt.

City Commission has a familiar system for hiring large numbers of temporary election-day workers. But its ultra-sensitive database of 1 million voters cannot be outsourced to a call desk in India. Endless batting at voter-ID issues left permanent employees with less time to prepare other things.

One of those challenges was implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a result of a settlement in 2008, Philadelphia has been steadily shifting to polling places with handicapped access. This forced the loss of huge numbers of dependable locations; half of all divisions have had to move their polls since then. Shopping for handicapped-access sites is tedious and difficult. This year, City Commission had to find 100 new ones.

There were internal problems too. Although she took readily to Philadelphia’s political meeting circuit, becoming a darling of progressive players, Singer didn’t mesh with either her fellow Democrat Clark or her fellow PhD Schmidt. Both men (who had never met each other before) developed doubts about her leadership. Management projects assigned to her – an improved, consumer-friendly website, for instance – languished as Singer threw herself instead into opposing photo IDs. She rallied in Love Park with visiting Democratic campaign Valkyrie Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz; she became a regular on MSNBC’s talk shows.

But ward leaders who had immediate questions about the business of running the election got less attention from Singer. Grumbling started in the April primary and never died down.

An October surprise struck City Commission, in the form of a Republican Party challenge to ballot petitions for the Libertarian Party statewide ticket. There were 48,000 Philadelphia signatures on these petitions. Each one of them had to be looked up and verified – and often debated with teams of opposing lawyers.

“For two weeks – 14 days – none of my employees did anything else,” said Acting Voter Registration Administrator Greg Irving. “Had it not been for that challenge, we would have finished processing late registrations by Oct. 19 and they would all have been in the books.” Instead, they wound up on supplemental sheets, which were nevertheless delivered on time to all polling places.

NEW CO-CHAIRS of Phila. City Commission Al Schmidt, left, and Anthony Clark vow a better future for their agency.

The cherry atop all this whipped cream was Hurricane Sandy. It arrived just when the State returns its official list of voters for the City to use; when voting machines had to be delivered to 1,687 divisions; and when 8,400 temporary workers needed to be coordinated into a seamless workforce seven days later.

“We worked with the Managing Director and the School District,” Schmidt said. “Most of our polling locations are in schools or rec centers. We hired additional movers and trucks.

“Our staff literally worked through the hurricane, even when the rest of city government was shut down,” Schmidt continued. “Everyone came in.” Commission civil servants only went home once – when the City ordered them to clear their building at Delaware Avenue and Spring Garden Street for fear of a storm surge. But they were back at work next day. Six employees were borrowed from the Revenue Dept.; they also worked through the hurricane.

Still, City Commission lost two full days of delivery time, right before the election. By election day, though, all the locations, machines, binders and workers were in place, ready to go at 7 a.m.

“I cannot praise highly enough the professional regular staff hired by our predecessors,” said Schmidt. “They served the city heroically in a time of crisis. The person who deserves the most credit for this is Marge Tartaglione and her fellow Commissioners, and the team they assembled which we inherited.”

These labors would have satisfied everybody – if voting had proceeded like previous years. But it didn’t.

The voter lists issued to the County by the State are never perfect. Every election, some legitimate voters are left off the rolls. Provisional ballots are made available in advance for these individuals. The numbers needed usually don’t vary much from year to year.

Not this time, though. While Delaware Avenue remained dry, a storm surge of missing names inundated election workers across the city, as voters showed up in droves for a fiercely contested national race. A remarkable number of them found their names were not in the binders – 27,000 of them, twice the usual amount. (There are also 23,000 absentee and alternative ballots, not an unusual number.)

The Democratic 20th Ward Leader, State Sen. Shirley Kitchen (D-N. Phila.), knows her ward well. In most years, she said, a division might use a half-dozen provisional ballots. This year, she reported 175 provisional votes were cast in her home division alone. Her entire ward was swamped by hundreds more.

She was not alone. Across the city, ward leaders reported voters had been dropped from the rolls. First-time registrants, people who had changed their address, women who had changed their last name, PennDOT and DPW registrants – all found themselves left off the rolls. But even voters whose status was unchanged, were surprised to find they weren’t in the binder, on the supplemental list of last-minute changes either. “Some of these people had voted religiously for decades,” said State Rep. Ron Waters (D-W. Phila.)

This created major problems. Polling places aren’t staffed to handle large volumes of paper-ballot voters, which can take up to 20 minutes to fill out; many of them don’t even have room for people to sit down and fill them out. Long lines and wait times ensued.

Whenever a division ran out of provisional ballots and City Commission learned of it, new supplies were delivered to it, affirmed Schmidt. As of last Friday, he did not believe anyone was denied a vote for lack of a ballot.

Many ward leaders, however, complained they couldn’t get through to City Commission in the heat of election day. “The phones kept ringing, but no one answered,” said Kitchen. The person most ward leaders most wanted to talk to was Chairwoman Singer. Too many of them were disappointed.

The Wednesday after the storm, lightning struck. Scheduled was a regular City Commission meeting. In a surprise move, Schmidt and Clark voted to remove Singer as chairwoman and to name themselves co-chairs. The two men had not planned this in advance, Schmidt insisted. In fact, he noted, it is illegal for any two Commissioners to discuss policy outside their official weekly meetings.

Last Friday, a coalition of Black clergy and Democratic state legislators held a press conference to voice frustration and fury over the chaos they had witnessed. Pennsylvania Black Legislative Caucus leader Waters and others called for an independent investigation into the Dept. of State’s handling of the voter lists at both state and federal levels.

But they were also in a stew over Wednesday’s coup at City Commission. Wanda Peebles, who heads Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, expressed “outrage” that a “minority chair” had been appointed at City Commission and wondered darkly if Republican high jinks underlay the goings on there as well as in Harrisburg.

Not so, retorted Clark. Complainers like these “do not understand the inner workings of the Commission,” he said. By law, there are three Commissioners. For a lifetime, the Democrats have elected the two top vote-getters while the third seat belongs to the top Republican. So the Commission is always dominated by the Democratic Party and its leadership always reflects that fact.

As of Friday, the new co-chairs are focusing first on finishing the count of paper ballots. They must complete this by 21 days after the election.

STATE REP. Ron Waters spoke for coalition of lawmakers and clergy to protest numerous errors in voter lists on election day – and to call for an independent investigation of Penna. Dept. of State’s procedures which may have caused these problems.

Schmidt has already heard enough to be concerned. “There have been so many false alarms,” he said, “it has been difficult to distinguish the real from the false.” But he acknowledged City Commission had faced problems, and must study how they arose and how they can be prevented in the future.

“When an organization is firing on all cylinders and is under strain, then you learn what you can do well and what you can do better,” he said. “Our focus is on what we can do better. We have incredibly talented, dedicated and hardworking staff, so I am confident together we can solve the problems we have encountered.”

There are many reasons why people may not appear in a division’s binders, Schmidt noted. One is that a voter-registration campaign made errors when registering them; this way, a person could honestly believe they had registered, only to discover on election day their registration was invalid. Some properly registered voters may also have been confused by the changes in polling location. The private company that printed the polling books may have made errors in some cases. City Commission is looking into that.

Schmidt has also reported to the Dept. of State there may have been problems with its voter-registration system, known as SURE. Each County sends its voter information to State via SURE; before an election, State then sends back an approved voter-registration list, also via SURE. That is the list poll workers wind up working off.

Independent observers confirm Schmidt’s suspicion. Democrat 27th Ward Leader Carol Jenkins handles Penn campus, which has thousands of young, first-time or transient voters. “My voters are computer-savvy,” Jenkins noted. “When they arrived at the polling place and found their names were not in the books, some of them pulled out their laptops, accessed the Dept. of State’s database in Harrisburg and showed their names were there. They still had to vote by provisional ballot.”

Going forward, Schmidt described City Commission as an agency with 1million constituents: the city’s voters. He said the new co-chairs have vowed to improve its service to voters, to ward leaders and to elective officials.

Clark said this election has already taught some lessons. Election judges need better training on how to handle provisional ballots. “To be counted, they must be inserted in an envelope with the voter’s name on it,” he said. “But we have found some judges let the voter walk out with that envelope and just dropped the ballot into the box. We have no way of determining who this voter is, then.” The new co-chairs will closely review these and other lessons after the election is wrapped up.

But there is much deadline work still to be done. For now, said Clark, the two plan to take it one day at a time.

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