Philly election board chair dumped, election problems debated
November 7, 2012By Dave Davies
It was a strange post-election day at the Philadelphia City Commission, the elected three-member body that runs elections here.
1. There was plenty of discussion but little clarity about widespread reports Tuesday of voters being told at polling places they weren't listed as registered.
2. A Republican official made a convincing case his inspectors were inexcusably shut out of polling places, generating embarrassing stories about the city, and
3. The commission chair was unceremoniously dumped from her post.
None of these things seem to be related.
Let's start with the election problems. Various election officials have downplayed the stories ricocheting around the city about voters finding their names mysteriously missing from the materials at polling places Tuesday.
Ellen Kaplan of the Committe of Seventy said her organization heard from plenty of voters who were upset.
"This included voters who had been voting for a long time at the same voting division as well as newly registered voters," Kaplan said. "I personally did a spot check of a number of people who called in. Every person I checked was in the state database as a registered voter."
When poll workers couldn't verify voters' registration, they were allowed to cast provisional ballots, which are tucked in envelopes and counted later after the voters' status is verified. Commissioners told Kaplan they can't be sure how widespread the problems were, or what caused them until those ballots are tallied and records examined.
Commissioner Stephanie Singer expressed some skepticism about how widespread the problems were.
"By the standard of what was reported to us, to the staff, to me personally, by that standard of what was actually witnessed and reported, it was a very smooth election," Singer said.
There was simply no way to tell yesterday whether many voters were mysteriously dropped from the polling place records, or whether election workers didn't look in the right places, or whether a few glitches got magnified in an Election Day echo chamber.
But when the commission's staff looks through the provisional ballots, they should be able to tell how many were from people who should have been able to cast votes on machines.
Kaplan said she wants the commission to make a public statement of what they discover, and they promised to do so.
A very Philadelphia coup
The most shocking moment of the meeting was when Stephanie Singer was deposed as chair of the commission with the ruthless efficiency of a mob hit.
Singer was elected as a reform commissioner last year, and chosen chair with the support of upstart Republican Al Schmidt. But they clearly haven't gotten along lately, and in the "new business" portion of the meeting, Schmidt made a motion that the commission "reorganize" -- specifically, that he and Commissioner Anthony Clark, a Democratic ward leader who says little at meetings, become co-chairs of the commission.
The whole thing took about 20 seconds; afterward, neither Clark nor Schmidt offered any reason for the move. Singer noted they had opposed some personnel moves she thought were warranted.
One of my thoughts was that this simply wouldn't happen -- a Democratic ward leader voting to make a Republican co-chair of the commission -- unless U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who chairs the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee, gave his blessing.
Brady told me he was aware Singer wasn't getting along with her fellow commissioners, that there was this issue and that dispute. When I asked him point-blank whether he had foreknowledge that Singer would be ousted, he said he could "neither confirm nor deny" that he did.
For the record, Clark told reporters when asked that he had no idea Schmidt was about to propose to him. But Clark certainly didn't have to think long before voting yes.
Persecuting Republicans, and paying a price
There's been a lot written about voter suppression and ballot security operations in elections, but there seems to be little dispute that the treatment accorded dozens of certified Republican election inspectors in Philadelphia Tuesday was an embarrassing abuse of the democratic process.
Dozens of the minority inspectors ran into trouble when they went to polling places in Democratic neighborhoods. Joe DeFelice of the Republican state committee spoke to the commission.
"We had over 75 minority inspectors ejected from polling places yesterday," DeFelice said. "Things (were) said to them such as, `We don't have Republicans around here. Republicans aren't welcome here. We don't do things like this.'"
DeFelice noted that these weren't poll watchers, but actual members of the election boards in specific voting divisions. They had a right to be seated at the election tables in polling places, but were tossed by election judges who either didn't know the rules, resented their presence, or both.
In places where no minority (read Republican) inspectors have existed for years, election judges have appointed Democrats to the post. And there were no doubt cases where DeFelice's real live Republicans went to polling places where fill-ins were expecting to work for the day.
DeFelice asserted, without contradiction from election officials, that he'd notified the commission well ahead of time of the 301 polling places where those inspectors were on the election board.
Though court orders eventually got the inspectors in place, DeFelice noted that their ejection became a national story in conservative media.
The commissioners had no particular explanation for why the problem occurred, but promised to try to do better.
It's worth listening to DeFelice's statement to the commission, which you can hear by playing the audio tab above.