Campus has been bombarded lately with calls to register to vote in Pennsylvania, due by Oct. 9. Registration, though, is only the beginning. National issues tend to get the most attention, but how will your vote fit into the politics of Philadelphia?
The smallest political unit is the division, which determines your polling place. Several divisions make up a ward, 66 all. Most Drexel students live in the 24th Ward, which runs from the Schuylkill to 40th Street, and from Market Street to West Girard Avenue. Divisions and wards are used to organize the elections themselves. Depending on your division, you’ll fall into different districts for elections for City Council, the Pennsylvania House and Senate, and Congress.
More than technical boundaries, though, they also govern political activism. There are Democratic and Republican ward committees, with members from each division, which get out the vote for their party. They elect ward leaders, whose endorsement is influential in primary elections. The committees are your point of entry to the party machine: they often have vacancies which you might be able to fill with no prior experience. Each division also votes for a judge and two inspectors of elections, who then make sure on Election Day that the voting is fair — even students have been elected to these positions.
Ordinances passed by City Council govern mundane but important things like construction, the police and local businesses. Peculiar to Philadelphia is the “councilmanic prerogative”: City Council won’t change something like the zoning of an area if the councilman from there is against it. So if you see any big developments happening around campus, you can be sure that Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell was consulted.
Self-explanatory is the role of Mayor Kenney, who is granted relatively strong power by the Home Rule Charter, Philadelphia’s constitution. Less clear is the role of many others. The district attorney prosecutes crimes. The sheriff is not in charge of the police, but serves the courts in matters like selling properties with unpaid tax. The city controller audits government programs for their effectiveness. The register of wills deals with the property of deceased residents. The city commissioners organize the elections. These lesser offices don’t receive a lot of scrutiny, simply because people don’t know what they’re about.
Pennsylvania’s General Assembly is comparable to the legislatures of most states. It’s primarily known for having the largest number of full-time legislators in the country: 50 senators and 203 representatives. Another oddity in the Commonwealth is that our judges are elected, from the Municipal to the Supreme Court. When they run for re-election, it’s your responsibility to hold them accountable for their decisions on the bench.
It can be hard to keep informed about everything that will appear on the ballot. The website of the city commissioners, PhiladelphiaVotes.com, is the official source of election information. A good non-partisan guide is the Committee of 70. For judicial elections, candidates’ qualifications are examined by the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania bar associations. There’s always newspaper editorials, campaign literature and door-to-door activists of course. If peer pressure is more your style, Drexel has a few cyclically active political clubs. Besides Democrats and Republicans there are special issue groups like Fossil Free Drexel.
With all that explained, where do city and state politics stand today? There is no doubt that Philadelphia is firmly held by the Democratic Party; we haven’t had a Republican mayor since 1952. City Council has 14 Democrats and 3 Republicans — and two of those seats are guaranteed for the minority party. The primary elections get low voter turnout, but usually the Democratic candidate selected then will be who ends up in office.
That Democratic moniker hides a diversity of political views. They are lobbyists for bicyclists and for parking. For law enforcement and against the prison system. For more liquor licenses and for a higher tax on cigarettes. The conflict between the Philadelphia School District and charter schools is especially salient.
At the state level, there is much more inter-party competition. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are Democratic islands among the mostly Republican rural areas. This makes for frequent conflict between city and state politics — particularly on topics like school funding, guns and LGBTQ issues. The General Assembly is majority Republican but Gov. Tom Wolf is a Democrat. On balance Pennsylvania is a “swing state,” always guaranteed to draw a media circus this time of year. It means that just a few votes can make a big difference on Election Day, Nov. 6.
If you can’t make it, request an absentee ballot before Oct. 30. It may help to make a list with each pick before you go to the polls, so you don’t have to leave any space blank. And the first time you vote in a new division you need to bring an ID; your DragonCard will suffice. Armed with a little knowledge, you can make your voice heard.