PennDot voter registration issue the tip of the iceberg on election integrity in Philly

Philadelphia City Commissioners Lisa Deeley and Anthony Clark during a meeting in December.

City Commissioner Al Schmidt recently released information about irregular voting in Philadelphia. His report, which received national attention, summarized the impact of a state-level voter registration problem on elections in the city.

Between 2006 and 2017, a flaw in the programming of PennDot’s voter registration software, commonly referred to as Motor Voter, misordered the questions asked of prospective voters registering at the DMV. This glitch allowed at least 167 noncitizen Philadelphians to register. Ninety of these individuals also cast ballots in at least one election over this 11-year span. The issue was identified and largely resolved last year.

The problem Schmidt helped highlight is important because the integrity of our voter rolls is important. But so is registering eligible Philadelphians to vote. As is ensuring that elections are administered free of any potential conflicts of interest. On these last two counts, there are issues in our own backyard that demand the same scrutiny as the problems with Motor Voter.

This is why many voting-rights advocates agree that the Office of the City Commissioners, a vestige of 19th-century county government and overseen by three elected officials, is structurally flawed and must be reformed.

This is also why Philadelphia 3.0 and the Committee of Seventy filed a lawsuit seeking to enforce, for the first time in Philadelphia, a Pennsylvania Election Code law that limits potential conflicts of interest for those who monitor and run elections. We lost the case, and the court’s decision affirms the practice of city commissioners overseeing and certifying the results of all ballot questions, even those that directly impact the office and the commissioners themselves.

Unfortunately, the type of conflict of interest we sued to eliminate is only one of several created by the elected commissioner positions. The commissioners aren’t limited in their political activity above and beyond the restrictions placed on all elected city officials. This means they are free to raise and donate money to support candidates, as well as serve an active role in the party system. It is deeply problematic that the commissioners are allowed to influence the outcomes of elections, including those they are simultaneously tasked with administering and ultimately certifying.

Beyond the conflicts, there are systems-level failures deserving of attention. A voter-registration analysis released four months before Schmidt’s report by Keystone Votes, a statewide coalition of voting-rights advocates, found that more than 17,000 on-time, valid applications in Philadelphia were not processed until days before the Nov. 8, 2016, election. This rate was more than 8.5 times higher than the statewide average, and nearly 20 times higher than in Allegheny County, the second-largest county in the commonwealth. Late processing of registrations can create challenges for voters at the polls, and might raise issues with compliance with voting protections in federal law. The same report also identified instances of voter registrations being lost outright by local election officials.

And, finally, we are reminded of Philadelphia’s history of challenges in administering smooth, inclusive elections that have been well-documented by advocates, journalists, and in court settlements for decades.

In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the city commissioners for failing to provide sufficient assistance to Spanish-speaking voters. Three years later, the commissioners settled another lawsuit with the Department of Justice to give disabled Philadelphia voters greater opportunity to vote in person at their polling places. During the November 2012 presidential election, more than 27,000 city voters were kept from voting machines and forced to use provisional (paper) ballots. In 2014, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a complaint against the city after documenting language-access challenges for Asian American voters.

Voting-rights and good-government advocates were driven by these systemic and persistent issues to establish the now 14-member Better Philadelphia Elections Coalition (BPEC) in 2016. BPEC urges City Council to create a new Department of Elections led by a professionally accredited election director appointed by the mayor with oversight provided by an appointed, nonsalaried, and bipartisan Philadelphia Board of Elections. Sophisticated operational departments demand a single desk where the buck stops. Every other agency in the city works this way, but we’ve never had this in elections.

Also last week, State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) convened a hearing on the Keystone Votes report and other voter-access issues in the city and state. Representatives from public interest and civic engagement groups testified about the challenges they’ve faced and expressed a strong desire to take on the difficult task of improving systemic failures that disenfranchise voters.

There is urgency here: On the near horizon is a competitive gubernatorial race in 2018; farther down the line, a presidential contest that will almost certainly draw the most voters in American history. We’ve got a lot of work to do before then.

David Thornburgh is CEO of the Committee of Seventy. dthornburgh@seventy.org
Ali Perelman is executive director of Philadelphia 3.0alison@phila3-0.org