Fresh off his second mayoral loss, Philadelphia senator announces plan to transform city’s elections

The Philadelphia Skyline from the 'Rocky Steps' at the Philly Art Museum. Photo by Steve Lange, courtesy of Flickr Commons.

Taking a cue from cities around the country, Sen. Anthony Williams is sponsoring legislation to replace Philadelphia’s closed, partisan municipal primaries with a more open, single-round election.

Legislative Democrats announced a host of electoral reforms at a Tuesday press conference. Williams, who recently lost his second bid for the Democratic nomination to be Philadelphia’s mayor, said he planned to introduce a bill that would have the state’s largest city elect its mayor and council by ranked choice voting.

Currently, registered party voters during primaries pick Democratic and Republican candidates, who face off in a November general election that, because of a lopsided Democratic registration advantage, historically tends to be an afterthought.

Instead, Williams plans to propose a single election for municipal races, with all parties’ candidates are on a single ballot. Voters would then preferentially rank candidates.

A winner would be determined by dropping the candidate with the fewest first choices, and redistributing votes to their second choice. The next lowest performing candidate would be dropped, and the process would continue until a winner is decided.

The system is used in many other democracies across the world, such as Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland. In the United States, cities such as San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, as well as the state of Maine currently use ranked choice voting.

Williams pointed to the election of new Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a political outsider, over a long-time politician. The Windy City employs two-round, nonpartisan elections, which Williams pointed to as an example of what could be accomplished in Philadelphia.

“The issue of party affiliation and a variety of other factors would be less, and there would be much more of a requirement that [candidates] present themselves to voters,” Williams said.

Williams, who is also proposing a reform to ballot positioning for Philly judges, said the proposals were inspired by complaints from voters, especially younger ones, over the last few years.

As for support, Williams said he’s “not sure there’s any Philadelphia establishment people who would run to support this bill.”

Even if insiders won’t line up to change the old ways, the proposal does have the backing of an established good-government group, the Committee of Seventy. Pat Christmas, the committee’s policy director, said in an email that the organization is “supportive of ranked choice voting and would welcome a vigorous debate around” having a single election rather than a primary and general.

“I can’t recall a serious discussion around either proposal in the past, so if Pennsylvania is getting to that point, that’s a good thing,” he said.

Williams made the announcement at a press conference where other Democratic lawmakers introduced a raft of proposals to make it easier for Pennsylvanians to register to vote and cast their ballot.

Proposals include automatic voter registration, expanded early voting, no-excuse absentee ballots, and same day voter registration.

Democratic lawmakers said the proposals would help drive up turnout and increase voter participation.

A study released in March from Nonprofit Vote and the University of Florida’s U.S. Elections Project found that states with higher turnout during the 2018 midterms had usually adopted policies such as same day registration, vote-at home measures where ballots are sent to all registered voters by mail, or automatic voter registration.

The study also found that turnout grew by 11 percent from 2014 to 2018 in states with automatic voter registration, versus just 3 percent without automatic voter registration or same day registration.

Pennsylvania’s turnout was ranked 25th in the nation at 51.4 percent.

Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Allegheny, is the prime sponsor of legislation to implement automatic voter registration. She contended that her proposal would help boost public confidence in government.

Her bill would allow eligible voters to update their registration every time they interact with a government agency, from signing up for a public benefit to applying for a fishing license.

“You don’t have to go far to hear someone be like ‘government is inefficient, it doesn’t work,'” Innamorato told the Capital-Star. “This is a circumstance where we have the technology in place. We have the systems. We have the ability to employ this innovation in technology that makes sure all our systems in different departments don’t stay compartmentalized but rather can interact with each other and update our voter rolls.”

“And to me,” she added, “it’s just freakin’ common sense.”

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