Coffee can is key to Philly’s political future

voting polls

A coffee can with two Twitter accounts is one of the most important players in Philadelphia politics. And there are no plans to loosen its stranglehold on power.

For decades, candidates in local primary elections have drawn a number out of a coffee can — for years a Folger’s, currently a Horn & Hardart — to determine the order their names will appear on the ballot.

The so-called “can of destiny” is meant to ensure fairness, satisfying state law that requires a random drawing of lots to determine ballot order.

The method has its critics. “It’s a total disgrace,” longtime Democratic Party chair Bob Brady told the Philadelphia Inquirer, which reported Sunday that although new voting machines are coming to every county in Pennsylvania by the 2020 primary — and technology can create a randomized ballot order for every voter — there are no plans to kick the can.

The concern: How candidates are listed on the ballot has a real effect on voters, particularly in more obscure races such as judicial appointments.

That’s what research has shown. “It’s pretty much incontrovertible that you have an advantage if you come first. Just flat-out,” said Monika McDermott, a political scientist at Fordham University.

And it’s not just the prime position that has influence. “Some voters walk into the voter booth feeling deeply conflicted and uncertain — and the order of candidate names is a subtle, unconscious nudge,” Jon Krosnik, a Stanford University professor who has studied ballot positioning, told the Inquirer.

A six-year study of Philadelphia judicial elections through 2015 found that candidates benefited more from a position in the first column of the ballot than from having the endorsement of the Democratic Party, The Inquirer, or the bar association.

But backers of the coffee can say that a random drawing is better than the alternatives, such as listing candidates alphabetically or allowing the controling political party to decide the order. At least with the can, every candidate has the chance to draw the top spot.

Although technology could probably produce a randomized ballot for each voter, it’s bumping up against the text of state law, which requires a random drawing to create “the ballot.” Not ballots.

And because both political parties are pressing for election-code changes the other wants to avoid — Democrats want automatic voter registration, Republicans want voter ID laws — it’s unlikely the law will be touched anytime soon, leaving the tin political machine in place.

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