A Philadelphia government watchdog group says that a recent email blast by City Commissioner Stephanie Singer’s campaign is “inappropriate” and partisan.
Singer, a Democrat, is one of three elected commissioners who runs the city’s elections. Her email, sent to approximately 4,000 people, urged residents to turn out to vote in next month’s election if they want to deliver a message about schools funding to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who is running for re-election in 2014.
Corbett has repeatedly turned down pleas from Democrats and public school activists to turn over a $45 million grant that has been aside for the city’s cash-strapped schools. He argues that the teachers union must make financial and work-rule concessions first.
So Singer proposed in her email an alternative way to “convince him to change course”: Vote in November’s general election, when city controller and district attorney candidates are on the ticket, in order to persuade him that city residents will turn out in the gubernatorial election next year.
“He’s probably counting on Philadelphia turnout holding below 35% in 2014,” she wrote. “If we could convince him that Philadelphia turnout will be well over 35% in 2014, he would have a strong incentive to please Philadelphians between now and November 2014.”
Ellen Kaplan, vice president of the elections watchdog group Committee of Seventy, said Singer’s email is “inappropriate on a number of levels,” though there is nothing illegal about it. She sees the message as not-so-subtly telling recipients to vote against Corbett.
“City commissioners, while chosen through partisan elections, should operate, and be perceived as operating, elections in as nonpartisan a way as possible,” said Kaplan. “It’s going into dangerous territory when you send communications that name politicians who are running in elections that you oversee.”
For several years, the Committee of Seventy has been pushing to eliminate the elected city commissioners, and replace them with “non-political professionals.” Kaplan reiterated that call Friday.
“I don’t think the people that run elections should be chosen through partisan political elections,” she said. “This is the kind of email that underscores, to me, that point.”
Singer rejected the notion that she implied city residents should vote against Corbett. She insisted that she was not even suggesting that his administration should immediately turn over $45 million to Philadelphia’s schools.
“I am not suggesting that he should change course,” Singer said. “I am suggesting that the large number of Philadelphians who have said loud and clear that they would like him to change course have a way at their disposal to exert power.”
Asked Friday why she didn’t instead encourage people to vote because it is their right or duty, Singer said she was trying something new to tackle the city’s low voter turnout.
“People have been saying for years, ‘Vote because it’s your civic duty.’ And where has it gotten us?” she said. “It hasn’t gotten us turnout. I’m saying, ‘Vote because voting gives you power.'”
Kaplan argues that city commissioners should persuade more people to vote in nonpartisan ways, such as ensuring that the elections process is trustworthy and problem-free.
An unusually large number of city residents had to cast provisional ballots in the 2012 presidential election, according to several independent reports. The city commissioners say they have taken several steps to address the issue.
This is not the first time Singer has faced criticism over an email. Days before the 2012 presidential election, she sent a message to thousands of people, including campaign supporters and media, which read, “As a woman, and as a Jew, I am horrified at the prospect of Republican control of government.”
Singer defended the email, saying that it did not pose a conflict since city elections are overseen by a bipartisan panel.