Committee of Seventy: Highlights of November 2009 Philadelphia election

seventy

Every Election Day since November 2004, with an occasional exception, I’ve worked with the Committee of Seventy, a more than century-old political oversight nonprofit in Philadelphia.

I always come away with stories.

As I did in last April’s primary, below, I’ll share some of the best from last Tuesday’s election, a relatively low-profile affair, including just a couple citywide offices and a dozen state and municipal judicial positions.

Most disruptive

Sometimes one polling location stands out from the rest.

This year, at least three complaints came in for the municipal services building at Bustleton Ave. and Bowler St., which houses the 7th district police department and Councilman Brian O’Neill’s office.

That housed Ward 58, Division 1.

“There is not enough lights in the polling place, so older voters and even younger ones cant see the voting machines,” said a committee man. The caller added that he hadn’t gotten “a lot of help” from Seventy.

Perhaps most concerning, more than one call came in to complain that election officials were asked to wait before setting up in the morning because police staff were hosting a meeting. Many of the callers also suggested that police officers requested that polling officials leave for another meeting.

Then, not long before I left for the afternoon to go vote for myself, one more came through, a voter complaining that the hustle and bustle of the police department was “very distracting.”

“I may have cast an incorrect vote on accident,” he said.

For the first few elections I worked, I was assigned a portion of the city and trekked to all the polling places there, watching for myriad of common violations, excessive electioneering, improprieties and the rest. The past few general, primary and municipal elections though have seen me, with others experienced in the organization (I spent a year as a policy research and graphic design intern), holed in a Center City office building answering questions and directing the field teams, I started on.

In this capacity I get the chance to watch all the complaints that pour in — from field teams, to polling officials, legislators, their staffs and, yes, citizens, too.

I only worked from 6:30 a.m. until just after 1 p.m., so my experience only accounts for half the day.

Some of the quirkier complaints, as written both in the voice of Seventy phone operators and the voter callers themselves, that came in through the hot line system (215 557-3600):

  • From 19th and Ellsworth in South Philly: “[The second machine] is giving off red dye on people’s fingertips, which may be an indication that fingerprints are being taking. These machines are computerized, so I don’t understand why this is happening unless it is set up to do this.”
  • From 57th and Haverford in West Philly: The caller is complaining of a power outage at a polling place located at 57th and Haverford.
  • From 2521 N. 23rd St in North Phily: “Workers there were talking entirely too loud, and I couldn’t concentrate on my voting. This is a continuous problem I have had with this group.”
  • From E. Cheltenham Ave & Charles St at the Wissinoming Recreation Center in Northeast Philly: …The voter expressed skepticism regarding the location. I tried two different databases and got the same info. I also gave her the telephone number for the Bd. of Elections.” [No followup on what “skepticism” means]
  • From 370 Devereaux Ave. in Northeast Philly: “The voter works for the Philadelphia Fire Dept. and complained that due to the length of his applicable shift — 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. —  it is virtually impossible for fire department employees to vote. I told him I would forward his complaint, noting that the Committee of Seventy has been advocating liberalized absentee voting requirements.”

If you’re interested in volunteering with the group go here, or read more about them here. See a video on Seventy below.