The Coffee Can of Destiny Has Spoken, and Wilson Goode Jr. Has Been Damned

Really bad ballot draws for council incumbents.

The Coffee Can of Destiny.

The Coffee Can of Destiny.

And lo, the Coffee Can of Destiny was raised high, a ball was plucked from its depths, and the petitioner’s fate was determined.

Or something like that.

In a sixth-floor courtroom in City Hall this morning, dozens of politicos and wannabe politicos gathered for what amounts to an ultra-high stakes bingo game: ballot positioning in the May primary election. For a lot of elected offices, particularly those that get little public exposure or that feature a large number of candidates, ballot position is huge. Voters who don’t recognize the names of candidates often pull the lever for whoever appears first or second in a list of names. Conversely, candidates who draw a lousy ballot position can get lost in a sea of names, making it harder for supporters to find them on a ballot.

And how is ballot position determined? By having the candidates, or their designated surrogates, draw numbered balls out of a Horn & Hardart coffee can. You’re probably wondering: is this sort of thing normal? Well, yes and no. The coffee tin is a special Philadelphia touch, but randomized ballot position is actually not at all uncommon. There are other ways to do it, such as computerized voting machines than spit out random or rotating ballot positions on the fly, thus giving no candidate an edge. But Philadelphia doesn’t have those sorts of machines.

So who won the 2015 political bingo game?

  • The mayoral ballot order is as follows: 1. Anthony Williams 2. Milton Street 3. Jim Kenney 4. Doug Oliver 5. Nelson Diaz and 6. Lynne Abraham. This might help Williams a bit, but a vast majority of voters bothering to turn out for a primary election know who they want to vote for mayor. It’s the premier race on the ballot. Position matters a lot less when voters care about the office.
  • The fates were not with City Council’s Democratic at-large incumbents this morning. Wilson Goode Jr. will be the last name listed for his office at number 21. Vulnerable incumbent Ed Neilson drew number 18. Potentially vulnerable incumbent William Greenlee drew number 15. Blondell Reynolds Brown fared better, with a number eight draw. Goode probably has a big enough name to beat his lousy ballot draw. But Neilson’s unfortunate selection significantly increases the odds he’ll be ousted.
  • So which of the council challengers got lucky? Derek Green’s candidacy got a big boost with the number one overall ballot position. Deep-pocketed Allan Domb drew number four. Education activist Helen Gym got a rough draw: number 17. Isaiah Thomas, who performed well four years ago, did even worse with a second-to-last position of 20th. Indeed, a lot of the choicest bingo balls were selected by low-profile council candidates. That suggests there’s a chance of these more marginal candidates will stay in the race than many assumed. That would likely work in favor of the incumbents. The Coffee Can of Destiny both giveth and taketh away.
  • The only drama on the Republican ballot was in the at-large Council race, where incumbent David Oh got a needed boost with the number one ballot position.

Now it should be said, drawing a low number doesn’t guarantee lousy ballot position. Much depends on how the ballot is laid out. If the council candidates are listed in three or four rows, for instance, whichever candidates appear at the top of the rows will have solid positioning, even if they ended up drawing a relatively low ball.

But the final ballot won’t be ready for about another month, while election officials wait for ballot challenges to play out and for candidates to get cold feet and withdraw. Until then, the candidates with lower draws have to assume their positioning is lousy.


  1. Anthony Williams
  2. Milton Street
  3. Jim Kenney
  4. Doug Oliver
  5. Nelson Diaz
  6. Lynne Abraham

City Council At-Large (Democrat)

  1. Derek Green
  2. Jenne Baccar Ayers
  3. Wilson Alexander
  4. Allan Domb
  5. Thomas Wyatt
  6. Karen Gordon
  7. Carla Cain
  8. Blondell Reynolds Brown (incumbent)
  9. Lillian Ford
  10. Joseph Guerra
  11. Paul Steinke
  12. Barbara Capozzi
  13. Marnie Aument Loughery
  14. Sherrie Cohen
  15. William Greenlee (incumbent)
  16. Billy Ivery
  17. Helen Gym
  18. Ed Neilson (incumbent)
  19. Frank Rizzo
  20. Isaiah Thomas
  21. W Wilson Goode Jr (incumbent)

City Council At-Large (Republican)

  1. David Oh
  2. James Williams
  3. Terrence Tracy Jr
  4. Daniel Tinney
  5. Dennis O Brien
  6. Alfred Taubenberger
  7. J. Matthew Wolfe

City Commissioners (Democrat)

  1. Anthony Clark
  2. Dennis Lee
  3. Hiram Will Mega Ashantee
  4. Tracey Gordon
  5. Carol Jenkins
  6. Lisa Deeley
  7. Donna DeRose
  8. Omar Sabir
  9. Stephanie Singer