City Commissioner Al Schmidt had a lot on his mind Tuesday morning.
1,000 polling locations, 1,687 divisions, 3,474 voting machines, over 5,000 election staffers, 300,000 “I Voted Today (or, ‘He Votado Hoy’)” stickers, and the potential for one million different interpretations of electoral law.
Moreover, he had 13 hours for everything to function flawlessly on his first attempt.
Schmidt is one of three City Commissioners, the elected officials in Philadelphia tasked with ensuring adherence to electoral procedure on election days. The sole Republican in the office, the East Falls resident was elected to the post last year on a reform ticket.
This being his first time at bat, Schmidt adopted a proactive posture and spent much of the election day on the streets, spot-checking polling locations and addressing problems that were reported to his office.
Asked his reasons for adopting these tactics, Schmidt related that his predecessor was often doing ward-based political work on election days, and was unavailable to address problems.
“I felt that it’s my responsibility being an employee of the city and as an elected commissioner to give these problems the attention they deserve,” he said. “It’s an important issue,” he noted, “and a time-sensitive one.”
Just as important, he added, was making personal contact – in the form of personal gratitude – with the numerous temporary election board employees, who typically work 14-hour days for about $100.
“The whole system depends on them,” he observed.
And, for polling sites that had experienced irregularities in the past, he sought to raise awareness at the respective locations to prevent future anomalies.
The first call requiring Schmidt to hit the street comes in. There’s a problem in the 1st Ward, 7th Division, aka South Philly.
Each polling site has five positions assigned to it – Judge of Elections, Majority Party Inspector, Minority Party Inspector, Clerk, and Machine Operator. In Philadelphia, the minority party inspector is typically a Republican, and is authorized to appoint the clerk.
At this polling location, the Judge of Elections will not seat the minority party inspector. With recurring problems at this polling site, Schmidt hits the street, and arrives in South Philly by 7:25 a.m.
Speaking with the site’s Judge, Schmidt informs him that a court order is in hand, requiring the seating of the minority clerk. With little alternative, the Judge accepts the exhortation.
Returning to his Ford Explorer, Schmidt expresses relief. “The republic is safe,” he says.
After returning to City Hall, Schmidt is back in the Explorer, his destination again being South Philly. This time it’s to the 2nd Ward, 6th Division, with another minority inspector not being allowed to sit.
In this instance, there is a whiff of a personal dispute between the Judge of Elections – by appearances, a grande dame of South Philly politics – and the minority inspector. Schmidt informs the Judge that the minority inspector has been duly elected, and is required to be seated by law.
Schmidt then thanks the election personnel for their service, and instructs them to contact him if further issues arise.
Knowingly, the Judge says to the commissioner, “we have to stop meeting this way.”
Schmidt heads out to North Philadelphia in order to inspect some poll locations that have experienced discrepancies in the past. Schmidt doesn’t necessarily assume that malfeasance is at play, but wants to ensure the integrity and accuracy of the election.
Inside a school gymnasium hosting several divisions is Su-Lin Diaz, Judge of Elections for the 19th Ward, 3rd Division. Diaz has been working elections for 19 years. Her mother, Marcelina – the ward’s machine operator – is a 40-year veteran of Philly elections.
They relate an unusual story that has deep roots in city voting habits – their ward’s polling location used to be in their home.
“It was one of the last homes in the city to have this,” said Marcelina.
According to Schmidt, this is a process that his office is actively discouraging, with fewer and fewer private residences on the rolls each year. Eventually, he hopes that all voting locations are at public places and accessible to all.
Schmidt speaks with the Diaz family about his concerns regarding having more votes than signatures in previous elections, and they agree to help prevent their reoccurrence.
‘A new era’ for the office?
Schmidt’s schedule was echoed by his colleagues in the City Commissioner’s office.
Stephanie Singer, recently-elected chair of the Commissioner’s office, was at City Hall by 6:45 AM. Once arrived, she experienced relative quiet. The phone rang, but “not off the hook,” in her words.
At 9 a.m., she departed for the Board of Elections headquarters on Delaware Ave. at Spring Garden Street where she observed a unique phenomenon – calls for replacement doorbells for polling stations.
After visits to various polling locations, she stopped in to noted political haunts – 4th Street Deli and Relish in NW Philadelphia – then returned to City Hall for meetings.
Asked if she anticipated an after-work rush on polling stations, she said only, “I wish.”
Commissioner Anthony Clark was not immediately available for comment.
Zack Stalberg, president and CEO of the Committee of 70, said that the installation of Singer and Schmidt suggests a “new era” for the Commissioner’s office.
“They seem to be trying to fix the office,” he said, and explained that they are following customer service guidelines offered by the Committee of 70, and are attempting to run an “open operation.”
While Stalberg noted that Schmidt is politically ambitious – both personally and for his party – he credited Schmidt for taking the job seriously, especially when previous commissioners have often operated, in Stalberg’s words, on “cruise control.”
Next week, the Commissioner’s Office will go before City Council in order to seek additional funding for election worker compensation.
Shortly before his late afternoon rounds, Schmidt meets up with Fred Voigt, a deputy commissioner who acts as general counsel to the office.
Voigt – no neophyte to the vicissitudes of Philadelphia political life – remarks that he foresaw a slow day with few election problems.
Schmidt, in a self-effacing manner, asks if this could be the result of a newly-elected commissioner “getting in the way.”
In response, Voigt looks at the Commissioner and offers, “There is a learning curve…”