Elections: Committee of Seventy’s Patrick Christmas Talks Improving Voter Turnout

Patrick Christmas, the policy director at the Committee of Seventy, sits at his desk at the committee's Center City offices on June 3, 2019.

The Committee of Seventy is a nonprofit organization that works to drive up civic engagement in the city of Philadelphia. One of the ways it does this is allocating resources to educate people on upcoming elections and candidates with voter guides.

Patrick Christmas, policy director and one of just four employees of the committee, fills many different roles which include: policy analysis, lobbying, and maintaining the committee’s social media accounts.

Christmas believes the key to making changes in the city is to drive up voter participation. He has made it his mission to get people out to vote and be as informed as possible.  

According to the Pew Foundation’s Philadelphia 2019: State of the City Report, only 53 percent of eligible voters turned out in the 2018 election cycle. The Chestnut Hill neighborhood had the highest participation at 72 percent, while impoverished neighborhoods in North Philadelphia averaged 31 percent voter participation. Driving participation in these neighborhoods is key to putting issues like crime and poverty on politicians’ radar, Christmas said.

Why was the Committee of Seventy founded?

Seventy was established at a time when there was a very powerful and dominant political machine in place. In that time, it was a Republican machine. We were established because there were very few barriers between elected officials, business leaders, and union leaders, with very few rules and oversight. As a result, the corruption we had was bad for the city, communities, business, and civic life.

Seventy was established by a handful of folks with resources who were committed to fighting for things like an actual city charter that dictated how the city was put together. It meant pushing for a civil service system, so there were actual rules for who got hired and promoted in city government. One of our first major initiatives was to provide some third-party oversight of elections. At that time, voter fraud and voter intimidation were pretty rampant. We do have some issues with election fraud and intimidation today, but it’s sporadic and isolated.

Today, we’re in much better shape. Philly is still well-known for having a bit of corruption in it’s political culture. Unfortunately, that’s nothing specific to Philly. Pennsylvania as a whole is corrupt compared to other states. It’s older, and our politics are a bit more transactional than other parts of the country.

We still work on a lot of the same issues. Elections and voting are always on the top of our minds.

Employees and interns at the Committee of Seventy work at their desks on June 3, 2019.

Why is voter participation important?

This is a really important thing for folks to understand. When turnout is low, it’s particularly beneficial for those that are already in power. Those already in power have the relationships and the infrastructure to turn out their folks. Generally, a low turnout election in Philly means that we’re not going to have any kind of change. Sometimes the folks in office currently are the folks that generally the whole electorate will want, but we don’t know that unless people get out there and cast ballots.

I think probably what we’ve seen far too often in this city, going back a long time, is that turnout is low and that the folks in power, as a result, often return to power. And, at a bare minimum, are not challenged, which just like with anyone in any job. If you don’t have to stay on your toes and compete a little bit, you’re probably not going to perform as well as you should be.

What does an increase or decrease in voter participation say about the health of the city or a neighborhood?

In Philadelphia, we’re low wealth. We’re low-income. We have public safety challenges, crime, and drugs. Our school system is not what it should be. In the neighborhoods that have experienced these challenges and conditions for generations, it can make it really difficult to connect your personal act of voting to the change you want to see.

We do have a whole lot of offices to vote for, a ton of candidates. I think more than the typical voter can keep track of. It’s more than even what I can keep track of, personally, as a voter. All the judicial candidates for example, I don’t know all those folks.

When we have more contested elections, more competitive elections, it always has an impact on turnout. The city is starting to grow again, slowly but surely. The neighborhoods across the city, especially in this past election, we’ve seen folks throw their hats in the ring, which is a really promising thing. There were only so many seats available, not everybody was going to win. But when you have civic and community leaders stepping out and running for office, that’s a really good sign. That was a positive that we saw this past spring.

How does the Committee of Seventy drive up civic engagement?

There’s legislation right now in Harrisburg, there’s election reforms that are on the table right now, primary reform that we’ve just started working very hard on, and redistricting is something we are putting a tremendous amount of time into as well. These are the sorts of things that, if we had the reform, it would have a downstream impact on voter participation.

The biggest program we run now is our voter guide. This guide and the online resources we have, on their own, won’t be able to boost turnout across the city. The folks that might be on the bubble, we hope these resources can help increase the number of ballots that are informed. And by informed I mean someone who’s taking just a few minutes to review the ballot themselves and maybe talk to a friend or neighbor and not just taking the recommendations that were given to them by the party outside the polling site.

What we are most excited about with this tool, and this new company that’s creating it, is the ability for someone who’s going to review and create their own personal ballot and then share it with friends and family. Not just so they can take it and go blindly vote, but so they can use it as a data point.

The literature suggests that it costs on average about $30 to turn someone out to vote who wouldn’t otherwise go vote in a given election. So, creating programing on an election-by-election basis to nudge turnout is really expensive.

Where can Philadelphia voters go to get more information on candidates and where to vote?

I thought our local outlets did an absolutely tremendous job at covering the election this past cycle. I think that’s because we have journalists in this town who know how important this stuff is. They, with limited resources and limited bodies, produced a great deal of information for any voter to use. They produced issue-coverage and their own voter guides. The Inquirer had a voter guide, Billy Penn has had a voter guide, WHYY has had a voter guide. There are resources out there and all of them kind of offer something a little different. Seventy’s guide for example, we have this particular tool I mentioned that allows the sharing of ballots. The other guides had plenty of coverage and insights that ours didn’t. The good news is if someone Googles “Philadelphia voter guide” closer to election day, something will come up.

So all these resources are out there, just not everyone is utilizing them?

Yeah, it’s a funny thing. Even with all those guides out there and all the work that goes into them by all these people and all these organizations, there’s still so many folks that may not even realize we had an election. Part of that is that it’s really expensive to flag an election

The Committee of Seventy offices are filled with reminders of voting’s civic importance.

Why do you think some neighborhoods have lower voter participation?

Folks have run an analysis on this question. You can line up the data and see kind of which variables correlate. When you do this for neighborhoods and voter turnout, a couple of the variables that are correlated are either wealth or income and education. So some neighborhoods, if they’re higher income and more educated, their turnout is gonna be higher. Of course that raw statistical analysis says nothing about why that’s the case.

What can be done to make local politics more accessible across the board?

We have a ward system in this city. Philadelphia is one of only a few cities that I know of that has this kind of party infrastructure that’s been around for generations. The ward system gets ripped on a lot and the ward leaders and parties get ripped on a lot. We should be grateful we have such an infrastructure. There are other parts of the country that don’t have any sort of partisan infrastructure at all. We have a partisan apparatus in this city. Within this system, it’s partisan, it’s heavily based on relationships and it’s where a tremendous amount of power is wielded in the city of Philadelphia. If you want to win office in this city, you gotta work through that system.

It’s a good thing that this infrastructure exists. It’s a bad thing in that it’s a pretty closed system. That means candidates will go ward to ward to ward to make their case to the committee people, who are kind of like neighborhood level partisan representatives, and make the case for why they should be endorsed in that neighborhood or ward.

If this were generally what would happen across the board, if you’re a candidate, you gotta go to all 66 wards all across the city. You get to go there, make your case to the committee people who are about as close to the voters as possible and make your case. That wouldn’t be a bad system, as long as the committee people got to hear from everybody.

Unfortunately, in most wards, it works nothing like that. The ward may or may not have meetings at all. In some wards, the ward leader will just choose on his or her own, or maybe with a small group of people. Basically there’s no democratic conversation, no democratic process within it.

Has your organization specifically gone to neighborhoods with lower voter participation to help people become more involved?

I have at times. We certainly are not out there as much as we should. We used to run a high school program where I would go out to high schools and we would talk to students about the voting process as well as why local elections matter.

I would also at times go out to our various civic meetings. It has been limited, and this is something that’s been brought up, that we have to develop a “train the trainer model” to basically empower other folks to get out there, run programing, or offer presentations about voting. With our staff, there is only so much we can cover.

What do you hope to achieve within the next few years at the Committee of Seventy?

We really hope that Pennsylvania, certainly in the next 2-3 years, might actually get primary reform passed. We’re advocating for a fairly straightforward change which would allow independent voters to pick a primary. There’s legislation right now that looks like, at least in the senate, may have a little bit of traction.

We would hope that some sort of form of redistricting gets done. That’s been a big ol’ fight and is much more complex than the open primaries proposal I just mentioned. Here is a lot more at stake.

There are a lot of different proposals out there. Our hope is that something gets codified, ideally before 2021, so we can actually put it in effect this cycle.

Do you have any advice for anyone that wants to become involved or help in any way with this organization?

For starters, we’re going to need help from folks in contacting their legislators. For right now, that’s just going to be jumping on to our newsletter and following or social media platforms.

One of the things I’ve certainly gotten an appreciation of over the past several years is there’s a tremendous amount of power in any person reaching out to their elected officials.

Professional advocates like us, we have our role too. That’s to track legislation and provide the tools and tee up the ball for someone to take a crack at. Without citizens stepping up and pushing, change usually doesn’t happen.

Please email any questions or concerns about this story to: editor@philadelphianeighbors.com.​

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