Philadelphia City Commission Tackles Voting Year from Hell

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CITY COMMISSIONERS Lisa Deeley and Omar Sabir, R, joined Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson on Oct. 27 at the H.S. for Creative & Performing Arts on S. Broad St. at a Board of Elections satellite office on Oct. 27, the last day on which to apply for an absentee ballot in the Nov. 3 general election.

All three of Philadelphia’s City commissioners ran in 2019 for their office, whose mission is to manage the largest elections in Pennsylvania. By 2020, they may have wished at times that they had sought another line of work.

While organizing an election is challenging in some regards, most of its piece tend to repeat themselves from one season to the next. This time, Chair Lisa Deeley and her fellow Commissioners Al Schmidt and Omar Sabir knew they would face one new twist: Act 77, a major package of electoral reforms passed last year that shortened the deadline voters faced to register before an election and permitted absentee voting at will.

Both meant more work for the relatively small office, most of whose “workers” are modestly paid citizens who show up two days a year to staff polling places. Its budget had long scraped by at just over $10 million, to ensure smooth, accurate and impartial functioning of a vital civic process. But they felt they were ready for it – sort of.

“I was in favor of changes and in favor of Act 77 but not right before the presidential election,” Deeley said.

That was before coronavirus.

The infection plunged into Philadelphia in early March, just as primary-election campaigns were gearing up. By the end of the month, City Commission, like every other business in town, public or private, realized it had no idea how to manage its business.

It couldn’t recruit the 6,000 poll workers, many of whom traditionally were elders, at heightened risk of the virus. It couldn’t get polling places that were prepared to sanitize and accommodate socially distanced voters. And panicky voters were bailing on in-person voters anyway, swarming to mail in ballots instead – which would require for throngs of new ballot-counters – who were hard to recruit, since the workforce was sick or quarantining.

Every other county was in the same boat. The Commonwealth Department of State declared an emergency and pushed back the primary election to June 2. By June 12, Philadelphia’s Board of Elections had completed the count.

“We were swept into vote by mail,” related Deeley later. “We got a couple of months to figure everything out. We had our election-board workers working without training, in new locations or with workers they had never had to deal with before. All during the pandemic, on streets rocked by civil unrest [after George Floyd’s death].

“Even in the office, before and after election day … it takes a really long time to count hundreds of thousands of ballots,” Deeley added “In the office we have to be socially distant; we needed more people for opening and sorting the mail. All with the national guard next to our office. It was a crazy time.”

The first thing the City commissioners learned from the primary was that they needed more resources. Starting with money.

That wasn’t easy. City Commission is a branch of City government independent from the mayoral administration but it gets all its revenue from the general fund on an annual budget determined by City Council in June for the fiscal year from July 1 to June 30. It had no extra resources to budget for the spring 2020 primary. And Fiscal year 2020-21 wasn’t much easier since the City as a whole was predicting a calamitous drop in most revenue streams.

Philadelphia lucked out with a $10-million grant from a national source, the Center for Technology & Civic Life, to buy necessary equipment and plan to tool up its workforce. It went out to premier voting agencies like Colorado and Orange County, Cal. To study their methods. “We’ve been able to industrialize this process,” said Deeley. The grant also covered hazard pay for election workers, enabling the commission to double the miserly pay of pollworkers to $250 for a 14-hour day.

The City also drew additional resources from the CARES Act, Commissioner Sabir stated.

THE 3-PERSON Philadelphia City Commission is an independently elected government office that is required to have bipartisan leadership. It is tasked with overseeing the Board of Elections and running two elections a year in all 1,703 voting divisions in the city as well as any special elections that occur.

The bodies showed up by the thousand for November. Younger civic-minded volunteers poured in; community groups contributed; other City agencies found ways to reassign some employees; and temp agencies filled in missing gaps. Altogether, they added up to around 8,500 as election day approached, estimated Sabir (although the commission was still short about 400 bodies as of a week out, he noted). Philadelphia was able to staff many more in-person polling places for Nov. 3 as well as processing office space for the flood of mailed ballots. Applicants on unemployment compensation were exempted from reporting this work.

Much greater news than in the spring primary. Still, all these new faces meant lots of new training. In the age of COVID, that meant lots of online sessions. How effective they will be we shall soon find out.

As summer wore on, COVID-19 office protocols became clearer and more manageable. But statewide Republicans launched a tide of hostile litigation intended to hamper every effort by the commonwealth and its counties, hoping to incapacitate any measures that would make it easier for people to vote during the pandemic.

Aiming to facilitate early voting, City Commission set up 16 satellite offices as early as a month before the election. They enabled people to ask questions as well as request, replace or drop off completed absentee ballots. They were backed up by several more unstaffed dropoff boxes for absentee ballots strategically placed around the city.

These ballots will increase voter turnout by removing obstacles to people whose schedule makes Tuesday voting in person hard as well as for those who fear pandemic exposure in public crowds. “It is important to decrease traffic on election day,” Sabir stressed.

Opening a rack of branch offices for an agency that had never had any, in a hurry, proved daunting. Schools and other public-affiliated bodies came up with spaces but each posed special demands on setup.

Warehousing is a large hidden cost of a massive new mail-based campaign. “We had to pay space for the equipment – 125,000 square feet at the Convention Center – acquired costs, labor costs, to handle all the new equipment, Sabir said. “You’ve got to think like a bank executive. Getting the latest innovative technology to handle a large amount of mail is a logistical challenge.”

Hostile action moved the ball again late in the game. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had granted the commonwealth three extra days, until Nov. 6, to count all mailed ballots that were postmarked or plausible sent by Nov. 3. But a Republican appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court left in question whether those votes can be included in the final tally – a decision it will not make until after the election.

In the meantime, the U.S. Postal Service instituted drastic shutbacks in regular mail delivery times – right after the spring primary showed the importance of mail in the 2020 vote. Preliminary studies show that mailed ballots tend to favor Democrats and Philadelphia votes very Democratic.

The initial deadline to apply for absentee ballots was Oct. 27, one week before the election. But with mail now running up to 10 days late in some places, the Pennsylvania department of State and City Commission advised that mailing ballots be abandoned on that date, since those who arrive after Nov. 3 may not stand. Voters were urged to shift their plans to early voting or Nov. 3 voting instead if they had not yet received assurance their vote had been received.

Had to wait until court challenges, litigation led to a ruling that changed the ballots we ct. no secrecy enveloped, no straight party voting. Need temporary staff, Intend to be on 24-hr clock.

Mailed votes cannot start to be counted until Nov. 3. Starting then, Deeley said, they will be counted 24/7; she aims to record them all within three days afterward.

2020 may not be the year anyone in City Commission (or outside it) wished for But Sabir said there can be virtues in crises like these

“It forces you to become better,” he said. “It has made my colleagues and me and my staff stronger.”

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