Philadelphia election results turn up more questions than answers

Philadelphia’s election earlier this month has come under scrutiny, from national headlines detailing last-second court challenges and minority inspector poll shut-outs on Nov. 6 to postmortem investigations launched by the three-member Philadelphia City Commission tasked with overseeing the process, as well as by the offices of Mayor Michael Nutter and City Controller Alan Bukovitz. With the city’s certified election results due to the state on Monday and Butkovitz’s audit launching Tuesday, it’s likely that answers will begin to surface soon.

The most vexing questions surround provisional ballots – the number of Philadelphians forced to cast them more than doubled between the 2008 presidential election and that of this year. “A lot of finger-pointing has happened already,” observed Ellen Kaplan of political watchdog Committee of Seventy, citing U.S. Rep. Bob Brady’s comment to The Inquirer that now-former City Commission Chairwoman Stephanie Singer “screwed up” the provisional ballot situation.

Singer, a Democrat, was ousted as chair the day after the election by fellow commissioners, Republican Al Schmidt and Democrat Anthony Clark, who voted themselves co-chairmen. But Singer said last week that the blame for any Election Day snafus uncovered should be shared by all three board members. “Everything that we did as a Commission, from the very beginning and contrary to people’s expectations, we did on a vote of at least two commissioners,” she said. “So anything we did or didn’t do is the responsibility of the group of commissioners. And the role of the chair was very limited this year.”

Further, according to Singer, Schmidt and Clark snubbed several of her suggestions that may have helped avoid some of the snags, including a real-time provisional ballot tracker in which the Judges of Elections at each polling place could push a series of buttons on their Commission-issued cell phones to report each time a such a ballot was used, which data would be immediately available on a website and monitored for shortages and irregularities. “I circulated it to be put on the agenda of the September 19 meeting and it was clear there was no interest from my colleagues,” Singer said. “So I withdrew it because there was no interest in even discussing it.”

Schmidt last week declined to speculate on possible causes of the uptick in provisional voting pending the audit’s outcome and said he was “not in any way familiar with the recommendations” Singer said she made. According to Schmidt, “a number of factors” led to Singer’s ousting, though he would not say if the election was one. “Like a baseball team, sometimes you need to change your lineup or your batting order to perform better,” he said. “And I’m confident that this change will help this agency perform better.”

Kaplan outlined several scenarios that, in some combination, could explain at least a portion of the provisional-ballot voters. Those who recently registered or re-registered but somehow didn’t make it into the election rolls and those who voted for the first time in a new polling place but did not have any form of identification were rightfully issued the paper ballots until their identifications were verified. “The troubling cases are where people walked in with their voter registration card and said, ‘Look, I’m in the SURE system. I don’t know why I’m not in the poll book,'” Kaplan said.

Of the multiple plausible explanations for the provisional ballots, “we just don’t know yet what happened, which bucket people fall into,” Kaplan said. Due to the volume of complaints from longtime voters whose names were in the state database but suddenly missing from the books at their regular polling places, something appears to have gone awry. “Whatever it is, we’ll find out,” Kaplan said. “And I will try to keep pushing to hold [the City Commission] accountable – at least for telling the voters what happened – because a lot of people are very upset that their votes still haven’t been counted.”

Pinpointing the problem

Several parties were responsible for making sure Philadelphians’ voter registrations were properly processed, entered and printed.

– City Commission staffers processed voter registration forms, which were due to them by the statewide Oct. 9 registration deadline, electronically entered the information and submitted it to the Commonwealth’s Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors database.

– The state on Oct. 23 extracted all the information in the SURE database and sent it to a Burlington, N.J.-based firm contracted to print the city’s poll books.

– The firm directly printed the information sent by the state, which should have included all registrations processed by Oct. 23. Those forms processed after Oct. 23 should have been printed in supplemental pages accompanying the rolls.

This year’s election, like most, was beset by a backlog of voter registration forms – 28,000 of them were not yet entered into the SURE system on Oct. 24, the day after the state deadline for registrations to appear in the main voter rolls, according to Kaplan. “On the deadline, we received tens of thousands of registrations,” Schmidt said. “It’s an avalanche of registrations that come in the same night.” He said one source of frustration is third-party canvassers, many of which turn in all the forms they gather the night of the deadline, rather than submitting them as they receive them.

Kaplan said the Commission told her the backlog was cleared on Nov. 1 and assured her those 28,000 voters would appear in supplemental pages. It’s possible that some voters’ names were missing due to an error in the state’s extraction process or the vendor’s printing process.

But, according to Kaplan, those scenarios seem unlikely to explain the number of registrants omitted from both the main rolls and from the supplemental pages, including many who had voted in the past. “There were so many polling places where longtime voters or voters who [were] registered by October 23 were not in the poll books,” she said. “Why, that’s the question. The second question has to do with the supplemental pages. If a voter registration application was processed, why wasn’t the person at least in the supplemental pages?”

Political turmoil a factor?

Between Pennsylvania’s voter ID law, which was set to take effect during this year’s election until an 11th-hour Supreme Court ruling delayed it, and political squabbles within the City Commission, some believe that those in charge of making sure the election went smoothly simply spent too much energy elsewhere.

Singer, in particular, has been roundly criticized for devoting so much of her staff’s time to dealing with the voter ID issue, for which she is unapologetic. “I wanted to devote as much of the resources of the office that we could to educating the community and making sure that everyone who needed a photo ID got one,” she said. “Protecting Philadelphians from disenfranchisement is a completely nonpartisan act that is absolutely within the purview of this office and something I feel I was elected to do.” Schmidt, for his part, released a report during the height of the voter ID argument documenting what he claimed were instances of voter fraud in Philadelphia.

Singer and Schmidt took office in January allied under a similar reformist agenda, but their bond quickly unraveled. “By June, Al Schmidt was making a motion to ensure that a Commission chair could be removed, rather than serve the full term,” Kaplan said. Schmidt invoked that provision when voting Singer out.

Singer said she was only partially surprised by the move. “What was not a surprise was that my two colleagues have been working together for quite some time,” she said. “And what was a surprise was that I had thought that the Commission was supposed to have just one chair. I had thought that they would probably never agree about who should be chair, so they probably would never make that move, but they found a way around that.”

Kaplan said that until the investigations’ results are released, it’s difficult to say how the political turmoil impacted Election Day on the ground. “Essentially, Singer was doing her thing and Schmidt and Clark were over on the other side doing their own things,” she said. “They certainly weren’t functioning as a unit. I don’t know what, if any, part that played.”

By the numbers

12,634 provisional ballots were issued in Philadelphia during the 2008 presidential election.

Of those, about 8,100 provisional ballots were deemed to be valid during the 2008 post-election certification process, according to a rough estimate from Kaplan.

27,100 provisional ballots were issued in Philly during this year’s presidential election – an increase of over 114 percent from four years ago.

36,752 fewer Philadelphians voted in this year’s election than in that of 2008.

650 voting divisions changed polling locations in the past four years – about 38 percent of the city’s 1,687 total divisions. These location changes have also been blamed for a portion of the confusion that forced some to vote provisionally.

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