How Mac-n-Cheese and Water Ice Caused a Small Voting War in Southwest Philly

Low turnout. That was the story during election day. In his concession speech last night at the Sidecar Cafe, losing City Controller candidate Brett Mandel told his supporters that voter apathy—the “Philly Shrug”—had doomed him. Ellen Kaplan called it the “sleepiest” election in her eight years working for the Committee of 70.  The roughly 62,000 who voted in yesterday’s Controller primary represents considerably less than 10 percent of the primary electorate. So any effort to get out the vote would have been welcomed yesterday, right?

Over in Southwest Philly’s 40th Ward, not everyone felt that way. I spent a few hours yesterday afternoon visiting polling places with City Commissioner Stephanie Singer, whose job is to oversee elections. At about 7 p.m., we rolled up to Patterson Elementary, where a group of young African-American volunteers were serving chicken wings, water ice, and mac-and-cheese, in hopes of enticing voters to the polls. The goal, said organizer Melissa Gray, who runs a non-profit called Adopt-A-School, was for “this smoke to get you over here.”

While Singer was elated by the concept of the cookout, Brian Keenan, the burly, ruddy-faced Committeeman for 22nd Division of the 40th Ward, didn’t share her enthusiasm. Standing across the school courtyard from the barbecue table, he began kvetching to Singer the instant he realized who she was.

“When I have people coming to me, walking to me, saying, are there sodas and water here, I’m trying to find out your address, make sure you’re in the right polling place,” he told her. “We got no notification for this type of situation getting sanctioned,” adding that thanks to the cookout, little kids were blocking the entrance to the polling place. The 22nd Division election judge, Keenan’s daughter Katrina, complained that people were “playing with their food” while she was trying to run an election.

What really irked him, however, was a flyer put out by the group. At the bottom, it read: “!!!! Free FOOD if you vote!!!!” “This isn’t Boardwalk Empire,” he said. On this point, Singer sympathized with Keenan. “Given the history of the country of people being paid to vote, you know, it raises a question.” Whether it constituted a violation of any sort, she said she didn’t know. (Melissa Clark says it was simply a motivating tactic, and that she wasn’t turning away hungry passersby.)

A few minutes later, back at the barbecue table, Clark raised some concerns of her own. Several voters, she said, had been told they were in the wrong polling place, without being redirected anywhere else. Singer immediately went inside to inquire, asking that I not follow her in. When she came out, she was explaining to Katrina and Brian Keenan that they were required to give a provisional ballot to any voter who asked. After nine years as a committeeman, he apparently did not know that, thanking Singer for clearing up a “gray area.”

“It sounded like someone came in and was not on their list and that they did not offer the person a provisional ballot, and they should have,” Singer told me a few minutes later. Oh, and about the flyer Keenan was so upset about? “The question is, was it that, or was it something else pissing him off?”

In a part of the city known for its tight grasp on political patronage jobs—where low turnout can be a boon for party-backed candidates—that’s not such a bad question for Singer to be asking.