If Philly Democrats Actually Care About Democracy, They’ll Make This One Simple Change

In what is essentially a one-party town, an open ward system would give voters an actual voice in how the dominant party operates.

Would an open ward system ensure that Philadelphia voters have more of a say in Democratic politics?. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for MoveOn)

It’s hard to watch the ongoing January 6th committee hearings into the attack on democracy at our nation’s Capitol and not be a little concerned about the democratic principles in our own backyard.

This week, while the nation is being reminded of former president Donald Trump’s constant and blatant disregard for a fair election process, the Philadelphia Democratic establishment is being accused of anti-democratic chicanery. Namely, of denying its own committee people — who serve as elected community liaisons between voters, party leadership, and political candidates — a say in the party’s decisions. Following a primary election that clearly favored progressive candidates over establishment picks, a recent wave of infighting among local Democratic committee people over the selection of leaders in the city’s convoluted ward system has reminded us that the struggle for democratic election processes is a bipartisan problem.

Our city’s ward system is politically simple yet structurally complicated. Philadelphia has 66 wards that serve as political units for tax and election purposes. Within those wards are committee people and ward leaders. Committee people are elected by voters every four years to help get out the vote. Then, those committee people gather to select a ward leader. The ward leader is charged with endorsing political candidates, fund-raising money for the party, voting for the party’s chair, and recruiting volunteers on behalf of the ward.

But here’s a messy fact: While committee people must be voted on by the people, their ward leaders don’t necessarily have to be — and that’s when shit often hits the fan.

Right now, legal challenges, screaming matches and even violence surrounding recent ward-leader elections are calling into question the entire system. In the 46th Ward, which is not too far from my ward in West Philly’s Spruce Hill and Cedar Park areas, progressive committee members are claiming that they weren’t given a fair opportunity to nominate a challenger to the establishment’s pick to lead the ward, former forever-Councilmember Jannie Blackwell (who recently lost — handily — her race for a committee-person seat). In Mount Airy’s 22nd Ward, progressives are accusing their incumbent ward leader, City Councilmember Cindy Bass, of excluding her fellow committee members from the decision-making process.

These problems — by-products of ongoing drama that happens every four years when the 1,703 voting divisions within these wards get to elect committee people — speak to a larger argument: Progressives are calling more and more for an open ward system, while establishment leaders would like the process to remain closed.

Open wards are essentially wards that give more power to committee people to collectively make endorsements, meaning that the committee people choose the candidates the ward will be endorsing. Closed wards give such power primarily to their ward leaders, whose decisions may or may not align with what the ward’s committee members — and, by extension, voters — desire. While it can be argued that ward leaders are indirectly chosen by voters (given that voters elect committee people, who then elect ward leaders), it’s also become clear that they aren’t necessarily endorsing based on what their (indirect) constituents want. Add the fact that ward leaders also get to endorse committee people (the folks who choose ward leaders), and it’s not hard to see how that leadership can become entrenched.

That’s why this issue has become contentious this election cycle. Judging by the many ward endorsements Senate candidate Conor Lamb received during the Democratic primary, you might have thought he was a front runner primed to win big in Philly. When the election results came in, however, he finished third. When you learn that a majority of the wards in Philadelphia are closed, you begin to understand how this happened. Leaders of closed wards, who are largely elected officials, former politicians and/or party leaders, backed the person they — not their constituents — preferred: the moderate Lamb over progressives John Fetterman and Malcolm Kenyatta. Those ward leaders endorsed the candidate who would best serve their interests without actually considering how everyone else was leaning.

Translation: A relatively small group of politically connected ward leaders across the city is having a major say in who’s getting endorsed — and their choices don’t necessarily reflect the interests of their committee people and, consequentially, the ward’s voters. As a result, the current ward system appears to be more rigged than democratic — which is why all wards should be open, to ensure the legitimacy of the process. Closed wards create, essentially, unelected fiefdoms. Open wards would be a counter to that.

What is the point of having committee people volunteer their time, energy and service to get everyday people to vote in our elections (including for committee people) if they don’t actually have any say in who gets endorsed in their wards?

When people ask why voter turnout is lower than expected or why it feels as though many young voters are becoming politically jaded, this is one of the reasons. Being a committee person has been touted as one of the easiest ways — beyond voting — for citizens to get involved in the political process. But committee people are essentially stripped of their voices in most wards and are expected to do the party’s bidding, so the post feels like a dead end. If the Democratic Party wants to be truly democratic, it should let committee people, who are directly chosen by voters, have an actual say in the ward’s endorsements. You may argue that the party is free to make its own rules, but in what is essentially a one-party town, how the dominant party operates is everyone’s business.

Opening wards would lead to more honest representation of Philly voters. It’s becoming more and more obvious that voters are no longer relying solely on the endorsements of their wards — with good reason: Those endorsements are increasingly out of touch with what voters want. If Philly’s Democratic City Committee wants to preserve what little relevance it has left, it will make all wards open and start really listening to voters.