Ensuring Accountability in Philadelphia Elections


Voting Rights Advocates File New Suit to Ensure Accountability in May Primary

Philadelphia, Pa. – Philadelphia 3.0, the Committee of Seventy and several candidates for elected office filed a new lawsuit asking the Court of Common Pleas to replace Philadelphia’s City Commissioners for the May 2017 primary with interim election officials.

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the Public Interest Law Center and private counsel.

According to state law, whenever a question related to a Home Rule Charter appears on a ballot, as it will in May, the President Judge must appoint temporary election overseers to serve in the place of the City Commissioners. To date, President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper has yet to appoint such overseers. The petitioners are committed to ensuring the upcoming primary election complies with state law and have been seeking to resolve this issue since January.

The plaintiffs have filed a new lawsuit in the Court of Common Pleas, directly against the three City Commissioners. This filing comes after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied the initial petition, which named the President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas as the defendant, not the City Commissioners.

The City Commissioners are responsible for managing Philadelphia’s elections. Among the largest cities in the United States, Philadelphia is the only city with three full-time elected officials charged with overseeing elections. Residents pay almost half a million dollars in taxes to cover the salary costs of the three elected Commissioners.

The state law under which this lawsuit has been brought has not been followed in Philadelphia for at least 15 years. If the lawsuit is successful, the City Commissioners will have to step aside not only for the May 16 primary but for any election in the future where a proposed amendment to the Home Rule Charter is on the ballot. The enforcement of this law since 2002 would have rendered the City Commissioners unable to perform their formal duties as election overseers in nearly three quarters of elections.

The Better Philadelphia Elections Coalition, a non-partisan coalition of voting rights groups, community advocates and civic leaders, is calling on City Council to create a new Department of Elections to replace the obsolescent Office of the City Commissioners. The Coalition is asking for a Department led by an accredited director appointed by the Mayor with the consent of City Council, with oversight provided by an appointed, non-salaried, and bipartisan Philadelphia Board of Elections, also consented to by City Council. Philadelphia 3.0, Committee of Seventy and the Public Interest Law Center are all members of this coalition.