What experience and/or personal background qualifies you to hold this office? If elected, what would be your top three policy goals for this office?
I have been a community activist and organizer my entire adult life. I’ve founded nonprofits in Philadelphia such as the Arab-American Development Corporation, United Voices, and the Pennsylvania Immigration Citizenship Coalition. All of these groups were founded with intention of engaging with immigrants and new Americans to bring them into the political process. I have also been on “get out the vote” campaigns for multiple political campaigns, including Mayor Michael Nutter, Jim Kenney, Governor Wolf, and President Obama. I served as Commissioner on the Philadelphia Civil Service Commission (1996-2004) and as Chairman of the PA State Civil Service Commission (2004-2010).
My three top priorities will be the following:
- Increasing voter registration by implementing Transit Voter (allowing citizens
to register to vote when registering for their SEPTA Key cards), Library Voter (allowing citizens to register to vote when they get their library card), and GED Voter (allowing citizens to register to vote when taking their GED exam).
- Ensuring that the needs of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable populations are met so that they can perform their civic duties. This includes: providing resources to ensure that polling stations are abundant in every neighborhood that needs them, ensuring that polling stations are handicap accessible and providing alternatives when they are not, and providing adequate translators and translated materials to any language group that needs it.
- Lobbying the state to make changes that we cannot make unilaterally in Philadelphia. This includes: early voting, mail-in voting, same-day registration, and open primaries.
Philadelphia is the only municipality in the country with three elected officials who do nothing but oversee elections. Additionally, City Commissioners seeking re-election do not perform most of their duties one year out of every four. If you were to design an optimal election apparatus from scratch, what would it look like and why?
While I respect the idea that the Commissioners’ office should be independent, electing our Commissioners has obviously not produced results that are desirable. I believe the office can be used for incredible good if the officials are determined, but they have all too often fallen short.
Over the course of my campaign, I have committed to looking at ways the City Commissioners could be made into a civil service agency. It bears more research, as it would require changing the Philadelphia charter, but it is certainly doable. What I want to avoid is having the office answering directly to the Mayor, for obvious reasons. So I would propose a governing body comprised of various non-partisan city officials, advocates, and leaders, who would interview a series of candidates and then make recommendations to the Mayor. The Mayor would then choose three officials (I would keep the requirement that it be 2 from a majority party and 1 from a minority) who would oversee the duties of the office for a predetermined term.
Given that young people are the largest subset of the electorate with the lowest turnout, what is your plan for engaging the next generation of Philadelphia voters? What programs would you pursue to facilitate increased electoral participation and remove any barriers for under-voting groups?
I believe the Commissioners’ office should be regularly engaging with schools. This would include trips to schools to hold interactive assemblies on what civil engagement is and how it affects their daily lives. Perhaps we could hold mock elections where students could become familiar with the process of vetting their candidates, researching platforms, and what physically voting entails. Something like this could start in elementary school and continue throughout high school. I would also like to have a bus that travels to high schools and colleges in Philadelphia and registers young voters. I would also embrace new technology and social media as a way to reach out to our young citizens and keep them engaged.
What role, if any, do you believe City Commissioners play in educating the public about voting issues and the electoral process?
This is perhaps t he most critical duty of a City Commissioner. If elected, I am committed to publishing a voter guide for every Philadelphia election. This guide would be available digitally and would also be mailed to every Philadelphia voter. It would give them information about their polling location, the candidates up for election, and any proposals for which they will be voting. The guide would be nonpartisan. It is baffling that we do not already do this. I would also be a regular attendee of neighborhood association and civic association meetings throughout the city in order to inform residents about what the Commissioners are doing, and answer any questions that may arise.
What do you believe are the most serious issues plaguing Philadelphia polling places on Election Day and what plan would you propose to resolve these issues?
I believe that you have to look at this neighborhood to neighborhood. For some, the most serious issue is their limited and dilapidated polling places. For this I would provide resources to improve polling stations and locate suitable new ones. For some, disability access is the most serious issue, and for that I would similarly propose providing resources to make sure that every polling station is disability accessible, or provide alternate polling stations where necessary. Some simply do not know where their polling station is, and I would solve this with my voter guide that would also provide that information. Often, the understaffed and undertrained poll workers are unable to keep up with the volume of voters. I want to be clear that this is a failure of the office, not of these workers. For that, I would reassess the current training models and hand books we use to keep our poll workers better informed and more efficient. I go into more detail about this aspect below.
Do you believe that any updates or improvements to Philadelphia electoral rules, such as early or mail-in voting, could facilitate greater electoral participation? If so, what changes would you like to see and what would you do to implement such changes?
Pennsylvania has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country. Early voting and mail-in voting are just two of the remedies to a very serious problem. Unfortunately, this is something that must be changed at a state-wide level. However, the Commissioners should just sit back and shrug. The Commissioners of the largest municipality in the state should be demanding these changes, out on the front lines as a cheerleader for better elections. We cannot be complacent. We need to advocate just as hard for fair elections as some in the government are working to take them away.
Critical to a functional and efficient Election Day experience is the presence of trained and well-informed poll workers. What would you do to improve the pipeline of qualified workers for Philadelphia polling places? What, if any, changes would you make to the current training program or other aspects of the job (e.g., half-day shifts) for poll workers?
The way we currently train our poll workers is disorganized at best. We need to look at the training models to see how they can be made more efficient, and get feedback from poll workers to see how we can make the training more helpful and informative. Training needs to be available more than 2 times a year as it is currently. We need to look at the handbooks and make sure they are up-to-date, and again get feedback from poll workers to find out about times they have had questions that the handbooks were unable to answer, and to speak to election board officials to see what questions they are asked most often, and then rectify that.
It would be great to implement half-day shifts so that poll workers don’t get tired. There may need to be a system implemented to ensure that the handoff is done effectively and without disruption, but that should be easy to figure out. I would also propose holding regular community meetings to keep everyone informed and try to reach new poll workers, as well as putting out a monthly newsletter. I would reach out to professors of relevant courses in the city to see whether they would be willing to work with us to help find young volunteers. I would also propose increasing the pay for our poll workers.
Do you think the pros and cons of advocating for the purchase of new voting machines has been discussed and debated adequately with the public? If not, how would you have approached public education and debate on this issue differently?
I think the way the Commissioners handled the purchasing of new voting machines was unforgivable. The entire process was shrouded in secrecy and there were serious questions raised about the bidding process. Firstly, I would have entertained bids from multiple companies without a favorite. Then I would have held well-advertised public forums, attended neighborhood association and civic association meetings, and spoken with election security experts and voting rights advocates. I would have listened to the concerns, needs, and wants from these groups and let them guide me in the decision process. I feel that these groups were offered merely lip service by the Commissioners, but were not actually taken into consideration.
What, if any, system do you think should be implemented to improve registered voter check-in systems on Election Day? What would your plan be to implement an improved system and on what timeline? Finally, if your plan involves the purchase of an electronic system, how do you believe that the security of the voter registration list can be maintained?
I’ll be honest, electronic check-in systems make me nervous. While it is tempting to think that this could speed up the process, I worry about the resiliency of the technology and its susceptibility to manipulation. I would have serious questions about what the program is, whether it is a city-owned patent or whether we are renting the software from a private business. I would want to know where the information is being sent and how it is being stored and maintained.
While the way we check in voters now can be daunting, even with electronic check-in there would need to be a paper back up and so I wonder if we would not just be adding an extra step and therefore increasing the time it takes to check voters in, rather than decreasing. For polling stations that experience high turnout, it might make more sense to put our resources into additional poll workers to speed the process up, rather than new technology.
What actions would you take to ensure that the office of the Commissioners is fully transparent in its decision-making? What would you do to ensure that the public has full access to decisions made by the Commissioners?
If I am Commissioner, every meeting will be publicized and there will be at least 30 days notice before any meeting. A monthly newsletter would also keep concerned citizens up to date. I would also create advisory boards to manage different tasks such as language access and disabilities, and meet regularly with advocate groups to listen to concerns and answer questions.
Given that the issues facing polling places and poll workers are often governed by state law, what changes would you advocate for in Harrisburg to improve the efficiency of Philly’s polling places?
In Harrisburg, I would be a loud advocate for expanding Philadelphia’s voting laws in favor of early voting, same-day registration, open primaries, and vote-by-mail. Many of these policies would ease election day congestion at polling stations. I would also ask them to make funds available for some of the initiatives I have proposed. Philadelphia should not be on its own when it comes to the enfranchisement of Pennsylvania voters.
One important thing that Harrisburg could rectify that would help Philadelphia polling places and poll workers would be to allow poll workers to work at divisions other than their own. I think this could greatly cut down on the shortage of poll workers at given locations.
How do you think resources (including staff and budget) and duties should be divided among the three Commissioners?
Since Commissioner is an elected position, I believe all three Commissioners should be paid equally, with the Chairperson being the first among equals. I believe all three should have equal staff and staff salary. I also think that we can reexamine the salary paid to the Commissioners. While it is important to attract good, qualified candidates to office, there may be room to bring it down, especially when we look at increasing the pay for poll workers.