Driving up Broad Street, we found traffic heavier than normal, but still moving at a good clip. It wasn’t until about Sansom that it jammed up: cars slowed to a crawl, horns began to sound, and a sense of excitement pulsed in the air. This was my first time on this election night errand, and I knew my task in general terms, but I didn’t really know what was coming. Slowly we rolled into Centre Square, and my mouth fell open as I found a carnival under way.
In 1988, I was 31 and one year into my second stint living in Philadelphia. I knew well what Centre Square should have looked like in those days at 10 on a Tuesday night: a high-speed traffic circle devoid of human presence. Instead, the lanes curving around City Hall were packed and so jammed from cars entering at all compass points that drivers just stopped at random. Everywhere, passengers hopped out and slammed car doors behind them. Each carried one cardboard and one metal box. In unison, they sprinted toward the sidewalk on Juniper Street north of Market, yelling improbable rendezvous plans back at the driver. “Wait for me over there!” “Honk the horn so I know where you’ll be!” “Don’t move till I get back!” In my memory, I see wall-to-wall people and hear the volume cranked up to 11.
I lived in Spruce Hill, just west of Penn’s campus in West Philadelphia, a neighborhood that celebrated its racial and ethnic diversity. But here, at Centre Square on election night was what felt like the full range of humanity, people who rarely crossed paths in daily life now engaged shoulder to shoulder in the same, singular, insiders’ ritual—far from the television studios where the votes were tallied, announced, and analyzed for the public.
What all of us were doing, in the years before the City Commissioners moved their warehouse operation to a boring stretch of Spring Garden Street at Columbus Boulevard, was returning to what was then City Hall Annex (now the Courtyard Marriott) all the official, sealed records of the presidential election that had just taken place. The people had spoken, district cops had carried the informal “flash” return sheets down to Center City an hour or so earlier, and now the neighborhood folks who had made the election work were performing their last official duty of the night before turning back to their real lives. There were lots of smiles, even in all the traffic, even among disparate people.
That swarm around Centre Square, a true sample of all 1.5 million Philadelphians, remains one of the most vivid and moving images from my time living in the city. In this season of the Democratic National Convention, I want to share some more memories of Philadelphia electoral politics and election day operations of the time, as I saw them from the vantage of a Democratic committeeperson. Much revolves around my old polling place—then in the rear lobby of the Levy building of the Penn Dental School, and since pulled eastward to the Walnut West Library on the Penn “Hamilton Village” superblock, in final recognition of the now-permanent dominance of student voters in the division.
My wife and I moved to Spruce Hill in 1987, settling on the 4000 block of Irving Street, a small street of simple but spacious three-story row houses, most renovated in the early 1960s and several still occupied by Penn faculty, staff, or retirees. We and our immediate neighbors probably represented nearly half the permanent residents then remaining in the entire 400-voter-plus 9th Division of the 27th Ward. On the bigger streets like Locust, Spruce, and Pine, there were then only one or two owner-occupiers remaining on the 3900-4100 blocks. Farther west, Spruce Hill was a racially diverse mix of permanent residents and graduate and professional students. But closest to campus where we lived, the transition to short-term undergraduate student rentals was already far advanced.
We duly registered to vote that spring, and soon after Mary Goldman knocked at our door. She was (and still is) the owner of a grand Victorian twin house on Pine Street, a committed reform Democratic activist who’d once served as 27th Ward leader herself but had since dropped back to committeewoman status. Mary was sounding us out for the fall 1987 election, when Mayor Wilson Goode would be running for re-election against former Mayor Frank Rizzo. She wanted to know, would one of us be interested in serving as her co-committee person? With permanent residents bleeding away, her co-committeeperson had been a graduate student who had just left with a degree, and Mary wanted a new partner.
In 1987 I was too timid to bite. But the next year—a presidential election year—I consented, and Ward Leader Kevin Vaughan delivered me a watcher’s certificate. By definition watchers are partisan, affiliated with one party or the other or one of the candidates. Often they are also the division committeepersons. During the day, partisan watchers try to ensure that the rules are followed, that only properly registered voters are allowed into the booth, that there’s no improper influence exercised over them once they’re inside.
What about the Penn student who now lives in your division off campus but was registered last year from a previous dorm room? They’re not on the voting rolls in the 9th Division but they still do want to vote! If they’re from your own party and seem sympathetic, you drive them to the police station, where they swear before a municipal judge they’re qualified by current residence to vote in your division and will vote nowhere else. Then you drive them back so they can execute a paper “affidavit ballot” that’s turned back in (along with absentee ballots that were already in your City-supplied box) at City Hall Annex at the end of the night. At night, when the machine is opened and the votes are counted, you watch again to make sure there’s no funny business with lost or extra votes and that the machine seals that ensure integrity are properly broken and then re-applied.
All this and more was outlined in the publication issued annually by the City Commissioners, the vestigial officers of a long-defunct Philadelphia County government, who now function as the unified city/county board of elections independent of the Mayor’s control. That publication included detailed instructions on how to set up and break down each of the different types of electromechanical machines then in use, but even more importantly, it outlined the operations of the election board itself.
Quadrenially, voters in each ward division elected a (very) local board to manage the polling place. If you wanted to serve (and get paid by the Commissioners), you circulated a petition among your roughly 400 neighbors in the division, and you actually ran for the office alongside those running for the party office of committeeperson. The highest vote getter for the election board became the “judge of elections,” the next highest of the same party was “majority inspector,” the highest from the other party was the “minority inspector,” and there were two more discretionary appointments, one by the minority inspector and one by the Commissioners.
These officers of the board were guaranteed to get paid by the City for a day’s work if they showed up, and they got a bonus if they attended the City Commissioners’ training sessions. I’ve always found it funny that inner-city voting fraud has become a boogeyman of conservative politics. In fact, it is precisely in compact urban election divisions that a local board of four or five with guaranteed representation from each party—plus party-affiliated poll watchers—stood a very good chance of detecting bogus voters, and there were clearly defined procedures for challenges. Even though we had many student voters we didn’t know personally, we had low turnouts for the same reason, and many of the students who did turn out were those we had earlier “canvassed” and fraud would have been easy to detect. When voting fraud occurred in Philadelphia, I believe it mostly occurred in ways other than through non-resident, deceased, or otherwise ineligible voters. (I suspect the most common method was probably unauthorized “assistance” inside the voting machine, the “tell” for which was the four-legged voter.)
In the 1980s, the City Commissioners were trying hard to modernize. Street lists were computer-generated and the master lists at the polls generally matched the buff-colored cards you signed at registration and which came to the polling place in a binder inside that metal box. But the City was also changing in a way that made it difficult to conform to the ideal operational style. Neighborhoods were fraying, especially in our case, and the money the Commissioners paid for election-day service was no longer attractive to any but the poorest permanent residents. It was now common for there to be vacancies in the election board, either because the incumbent stopped showing up one year, or no one had run in the last election. In divisions like ours, it came down to if you wanted the job, showed up on election day and signed the oaths, it could be yours. If you wanted to be paid extra, you showed up at the training session, too.
In our division, Democrats were by far the majority because of all the students, but the judge of elections at our polling place was always a Republican. Carla Rahemtulla was the last permanent resident in our division willing to do the job. She knew it cold, and it was hers for the asking each year. Carla was the adult daughter of my next-door neighbors, Reginald and Dorothy Christian, a by-then elderly African American couple. Dot was a Democrat, but Reg and his daughter were Republicans. Reg had come north from the Carolinas during the great post-War black migration, and he found that his natural inclination to vote Republican (in the south, the Democrats had been the party of Jim Crow) fit exceptionally well with the Republican machine that controlled Philadelphia politics until 1951. It was not a bad idea to be Republican if you wanted your street plowed when it snowed, or other small favors done. Reg never budged off the Republican rolls, even after reform Democrats ended the Republican Machine, and in due course Carla followed him. Was it out of true belief in Republican principles? Lifelong antipathy to Jim Crow Democrats? Or a sense that they had increasing leverage for “street money” as one of the few remaining Republican black families in the ward, and one of the few remaining Republicans, period, in our division? I never asked.
We somehow patched together an election board each year with Carla at the helm, and casual labor (including, one year, my wife) drafted into duty for the other positions. In a more typical division, it might have been more difficult to guarantee election integrity, but in our case Carla, Mary, and I knew literally every registered voter who was a permanent resident. The students had low turnout, both by disposition and because they moved so frequently. Total vote counts of under 100 were not unusual, possibly under 50 for off-year and primary elections. Our control was not perfect, but it was pretty good. At the end of the night, when the counting ritual had to be done, Carla broke the seals and showed the temp workers the ropes. The board began reading and cross-checking the results off the machine counters, and filling out the necessary forms in quadruplicate. Fairly early on, a cop would show up to carry the “flash” returns on high-profile races back to Center City for use by the news media and respective party apparatus.
I’m originally from New York City (and live there again now). Before we came to Philadelphia, I’d had political experience there. A good way to close this reminiscence is to observe some contrasts between the political operations of the two cities. In New York City, at least one police officer is assigned to each polling place; you never know when trouble will break out. In Philadelphia, police were banned by policy (presumably after some unpleasantness) unless called to maintain order or until the flash was due.
In New York City, there’s also a 100-foot radius inside which electioneering is prohibited. In Philadelphia, that boundary is only 10 feet from the door. It took getting used to, how much we partisans could crowd the voters. In New York City, polling hours are 6AM to 9PM. In Philadelphia, thankfully, considering how hard it was to staff the polls at all, voting hours were only 7AM. to 8PM.
And finally, in New York City, I have never seen returns posted outside a polling place. In Philadelphia, this was a requirement. When the election board finished with the tally, they packed most of the sheets into the cardboard box for drop-off back at City Hall Annex, but retained one to post outside the polling place for maximum transparency on results.
It seemed that the Penn janitors always removed our tally sheet early next morning, but it was moving then—and even now I find it stirring—that anyone could have wandered by that night and read the results at a level of granularity that never even made it into the Inquirer, long before the existence of Web-based returns.
Just before we headed off to Centre Square (we were always short-handed in 27/9, so the watchers often did this rather than the election board), we duct-taped that copy up to the brick wall just outside the lobby of the Levy Building, and called the Penn campus police to lock the door that had been open all day as the people spoke their piece.