Democratic socialist pulls lucky ballot position in Philly Council race

The method of determining ballot position in Philadelphia involves 34 numbered balls and a Horn & Hardart coffee can. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The method of determining ballot position in Philadelphia involves 34 numbered balls and a Horn & Hardart coffee can. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Success in politics is about money, power, message — and sometimes a little luck.

In the drawing for ballot positions in Philadelphia’s municipal primary, a 26-year-old democratic socialist drew the coveted No. 1 position in what could be a 34-candidate ballot for at-large City Council seats among Democrats.

“It definitely helps,” said postdoctoral fellow Adrian Rivera Reyes after pulling just the right red ball out of a coffee can in a City Hall courtroom Wednesday. “I’m one of the newest candidates. This is a grassroots campaign powered by volunteers and small-dollar donations.”

Philadelphia political tradition holds that candidates draw ballot positions for municipal races by pulling numbered balls from a decades-old Horn & Hardart coffee can.

In races with large numbers of candidates, a high ballot position is an advantage, said veteran election lawyer Adam Bonin.

“When you have a matrix of 30, 40 Council candidates and another one of dozens of judicial candidates, that’s a dizzying ballot,” he said. “When voters have that many choices in front of them, some are going to gravitate to the first name they see. It’s natural. It’s human instinct.”

Voters in each party can choose five candidates for Council-at-large in the May 21 primary election, and the three incumbents seeking re-election have an advantage in name recognition.

Among the challengers, first-time candidate Justin DiBerardinis leads the pack in fundraising and comes into the primary with some name recognition from his father, Michael DiBerardinis, a longtime city and state official who recently retired as the city’s managing director.

Philadelphia Council-at-Large candidate Justin DiBerardinis picks his ballot position. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Justin DiBerardinis reached into the coffee can and drew a disappointing 31st ballot position.

“I would rather have drawn a three or a one, but instead I got both,” he joked afterward. But he said he never counted on a lucky draw to get into office.

“Some folks in a race like this are here to play the lottery, and their campaign is built off the right ball in a coffee can,” he said. “But we’ve been at this for two years now, and the point all along was to build a campaign that can compete from any spot on this ballot.”

Among the Democratic mayoral candidates, incumbent Mayor Jim Kenney drew first ballot position. Alan Butkovitz was second, and Anthony Hardy Williams was third. Billy Ciancaglini is the only Republican candidate for mayor.

Kahlil Williams, candidate for Philadelphia City Commissioner, draws the ball that will determine his position on the ballot. Acting Supervisor of Elections Kevin Kelly holds the Horn and Hardart coffee can that the city uses to determine ballot position. Williams drew number 7. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A better way?

The fact that ballot position in crowded races arbitrarily confers advantages has drawn criticism for decades.

During public opinion surveys, pollsters always rotate the order of candidates heard by voters in telephone polls specifically to avoid the distorting effect of a fixed spot in the order.

With modern voting technology, it would be possible to rotate the order of candidates through different wards or Council districts of the city, but Bonin said such a change is prohibited by Pennsylvania’s election code.

Jurisdictions in other states have even more curious systems.

“There are places that do it alphabetically. That’s not fair,” Bonin said. “There are places that let the party set the order. That’s completely unfair.”

He said the best system is one that gives candidates a random chance to appear before voters — and it could be achieved if the legislature acted to adjust the code.

“Harrisburg is very good at talking about election code reform,” he said. “I look forward to actually seeing it.

You can find the ballot positions of municipal candidates at the City Commissioners website. Here’s the order of ballot positions in the two races with the largest array of candidates:

City Council at-large – Democrats

  1. Adrian Rivera Reyes
  2. Deja Lynn Alvarez
  3. Helen Gym
  4. Willie Floyd Singletary
  5. Ogbonna Paul Hagins
  6. Fernando Trevino
  7. Eryn Santamoor
  8. Joseph A. Diorio
  9. Hena Veit
  10. Billy Thompson
  11. Beth Finn
  12. Latrice Bryant
  13. Allan Domb
  14. Katherine Gilmore Richardson
  15. Erika Almiron
  16. Mike Stack
  17. Sherrie Cohen
  18. Bobbie Curry
  19. Isaiah Thomas
  20. Vinny Black
  21. Wayne Edmund Dorsey
  22. Edwin Santana
  23. Mark Ross
  24. Devon Cade
  25. Melissa Robbins
  26. David H. Conroy
  27. Sandra Dungee Glenn
  28. Derek Green
  29. Janice Tangradi
  30. Wayne Allen
  31. Justin DiBerardinis
  32. Fareed Abdullah
  33. Asa Khalif
  34. Ethelind Baylor

City Commissioner – Democrats

  1. Marwan Kreidie
  2. Omar Sabir
  3. Lisa Deeley
  4. Luigi Borda
  5. Dennis Lee
  6. Annette Thompson
  7. Kahlil Williams
  8. Carla Cain
  9. Warren Bloom
  10. Moira Bohannon
  11. Robin Trent
  12. Jen Devor
  13. Lewis Harris Jr.

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