New Committee of Seventy CEO Lauren Cristella on Her Historic Appointment and Takeaways from the Primary

Cristella becomes the first woman to lead the good-government nonprofit. We chat with her about making history, lessons learned from Seventy's Democratic mayoral candidate poll, and how her organization is gearing voters up for 2024.

Lauren Cristella, the new president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy.

For the first time in its nearly 120 years, a woman, Lauren Cristella, will be president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy. In an interview with Philly Mag, Cristella, who has worked for the nonpartisan organization for past five years and is also the president of the League of Women Voters of Philadelphia, shares her vision for the Committee of Seventy when it comes to improving diversity and reforming current electoral barriers, and what she plans to do to keep voters engaged and motivated as we prepare for the upcoming general election and the 2024 presidential cycle. 

You’re the first woman in the Committee of Seventy’s 120 year history to lead the organization. What does that feel like?

It feels exciting. I’m thrilled to be able to step into this role and join the other phenomenal women leaders across Philadelphia. I think women leaders here are having a moment, from the Democratic mayoral primary winner Cherelle Parker to Chellie Cameron, the new Chamber of Commerce CEO, and other positions across the city.

What are some of the immediate changes are you bringing to the organization? 

So I’ve been with Committee of Seventy for five years, and we’ve really had an emphasis on growing our voter education and outreach, creating a youth civic engagement program that serves kindergartners through college. We’re gonna continue to scale those across the commonwealth and really make them ubiquitous in every corner of Philadelphia and across the state, too. The thing that I really wanna focus on creating and growing is bringing people closer to their government and creating a revolution in citizenship. I think we’re breeding voter apathy when we tell people how important it is to vote — and certainly when national groups come flooding in every two years and say “This is the most important election of your lifetime and people died for the right to vote” — which is true and important and of course absolutely necessary to creating any kind of change. But it’s not sufficient.

We need to encourage people to get more active and engaged on the local level. The Every Voice, Every Vote poll said that 45 percent of Philadelphians don’t know who their city council person is. That’s not just a problem from the civic knowledge perspective, it’s a problem because if you don’t even know who your councilperson is, you don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing for you. You’ve never contacted them to ask for the services you deserve. So doing that kind of public education is going to become more of a priority so that individual people can hold their government accountable.

I think it’s important for an organization with the reputation of the Committee of Seventy to call out corruption, mismanagement, and inefficiencies when we see them, but it’s way more effective if groups of citizens demand that of their elected officials and remember that the next time they go to the ballot box. So that’s going be a big effort that we’re going to be launching hopefully very soon. I think we’ve got some good support and we’re bringing together a lot of different community leaders to make this happen.

What do you think the recent primary told us about Philadelphia voters?

That a lot of them are apathetic, right? To have kind of record-breaking turnout in 2020, we’ve seen it go down — Philadelphia’s share of the vote. Well, turnout is increasing in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia’s share of that is going down. The Committee of Seventy wants every eligible voter to vote successfully and confidently.

So with this last election, I think it told us a lot of things. It told us that open primaries might be important to bring to Philadelphia, and that’s a huge initiative for Committee of Seventy. That’s a statewide change that we should also be considering along with other better ways to pick important positions, like our mayor. Places with lower turnout in crowded fields and one-sided party dominance have found success in ranked-choice voting or approval voting. So we’re in the middle of exploring what that could be and what it would take to bring something like that to Philadelphia.

Do you think the independent poll the Committee of Seventy helped produce came out too late during the primary?

The only regret I have about the poll was that we did it after Derek Green and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez dropped out of the race. I think it would’ve been even more interesting had we done it before, [but] this wasn’t something we set out to do at the start of the primary season. It was an opportunity that kind of came up and came together very quickly. We actually pulled it together within a week.

So yes, I would’ve liked to do it earlier. I do think independent polling is important and I would like to see us continue to play a role in that. The learning curve was steep, but I feel like I learned a lot about how this works. We certainly wanted to make sure that it was actually representative of the voters in Philadelphia, too. So that was important. Certainly having the partnership of Sharmain Matlock-Turner and the Urban Affairs Coalition, getting people who understood particularly the Black vote in Philadelphia and what the trends have been and how to reach those potential voters was very important to us. We took that very seriously from the jump. 

Your organization is currently undergoing a transition process for both mayoral candidates. What does that look like?

So we, the Committee of Seventy, did something like this in 2015, and we learned a lot of really good lessons. We’re recalibrating the program that we’re offering, but we’re really excited to bring national experts, bring people who’ve had the managing director’s job, the city solicitor’s job in Philadelphia for the last 30 or so years, every living city solicitor, every living managing director together to provide their expertise and get the next administration off to a running start. And with the very best information and plans that they possibly could have. So we’re really excited to be able to do that work with each of the campaigns over the summer. We’re also looking to do a program for City Council as well.

Philadelphia is a majority Black and brown city. The Committee of Seventy has an all-white, full-time employee staff. How do you plan to improve the image of the organization in terms of racial diversity?

Diversity has been a huge priority for me. Since I joined the Committee of Seventy five years ago, we brought the board to be 50-50 men and women, which I don’t know that many other boards in the town can say. People of color on the board went from, I believe, about 12 to 25 percent. And we’re actively striving to increase that number as well. Of course, we amended our bylaws to include a DEI committee and a charter for that committee. And that group is active in thinking about how not only can we be a diverse and inclusive organization, but what is our role in anti-racism — a more proactive role, which I don’t think Committee of Seventy has done in our history. But it’s a priority for us and for this board, which I am really excited by.

As far as the staff members, the first thing I did in the transition was to hire Ashley Session. She is a contractor, but we’re hoping to bring her on staff full-time. We’re looking to make another hire for a communications professional, and certainly somebody who understands how to reach every voter and every citizen in Philadelphia. So continuing that work. They have phenomenal partnerships with Congreso de Latinos Unidos and other groups around the city.

And we’re creating a council. We haven’t created a name for it just yet, but basically like a community-action council that we could pay community leaders to provide their expertise and serve as ambassadors for our work to inform it; Ashley’s gonna lead that work. I really have to make sure that the programs we’re creating serve everyone right and are useful to them and are meeting their needs. That’s a huge priority for me and for the organization.

So how are you all gearing up for 2024?

So I think we’ve learned some really important lessons from 2020 and 2022. We’ve built some really fantastic national partnerships that I expect to come back. So in 2022, we were able to host DJ Jazzy Jeff and Party at the Polls at West Philly High, right in that polling place. We did that across the city. We were able to have circus performers at City Hall for National Vote Early Day. I want all of those parties to come back and to be celebratory because I think voting should be joyful. I’m excited to bring all of those fun events back to Philadelphia. I think scaling our We Vote program, which is our partnership program—there’s a ton of data that shows that employers, religious leaders and university leaders are trusted messengers to their communities. 

So that’s where we come in with our nonpartisan resources. We partner with all of these groups. We just added the AFL-CIO to our list. They’re gonna share it with 200,000 members. The Philadelphia Corporation for Aging is a partner. They sent our materials to 140,000 of their clients. We really do believe in turning out the vote across Pennsylvania, so continuing that expansion and continuing to hone the resources, we improve and recalibrate after every election.

And that’s just some of the ways that we’re gearing up for 2024, of course. On the policy advocacy side, it’s getting as many of the improvements that election directors need to do their job well. So, pre-canvassing and changing the rules around the secrecy envelope and the dates. So many ballots are thrown out because of these little technical errors people make that end up invalidating their vote. And giving election directors more time to process ballots before the actual counting is so important to making sure we have the results in a timely manner, so the eyes of the nation aren’t waiting on Philadelphia and Pennsylvania for a week or two right after the election. 

What’s something that you want more Philadelphians to know about the organization that is often overlooked?

Our website is a phenomenal resource if you just want to find who your elected official is. You can type in your address and you’ll find every single elected official, from your committee person up to the president. Every single level of government is there on the site.

We’re active in the open wards conversation, so getting people to understand the ward system is important, too. We have a ton of great resources around that; it seems like a black box for a lot of Philadelphians and that’s where a lot of the political power in Philadelphia comes from. And then I think our civic engagement work with students. I think that’s because that’s a relatively new program. So if there’s parents, teachers, anybody who has a student in their life, we have terrific resources and a phenomenal curriculum that we did in partnership with Tom Quinn and PA Youth Vote that prepares students to cast their vote.

That work starts so early and it’s our long-term investment in democracy. Getting students to understand what their community is … if we can build that from kindergarten and add on to that year-over-year, and then have students participate by high school in our mock election and in the 17-year-old poll worker program so that our elections are fully staffed and well resourced, the city and the Commonwealth will be in much better shape.

The other big plug I will put in is for our poll-worker resources. Since 2020, we’ve taken a really active role in recruiting and training poll workers in Philadelphia and across the Commonwealth. Poll workers are democracy frontline workers; we can’t have elections without poll workers. And when our polls are fully staffed with well-trained workers, it serves everyone, serves democracy, it serves voters. Lines are shorter when voters are not disenfranchised. That’s so important and often look overlooked or taken for granted. I think people appreciate it on the day when their polling place is experienced. It’s a smooth one, but it takes people power—40,000 people across Pennsylvania twice a year, every year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.