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How To Run For (Local) Office

A guide to becoming your neighborhood’s new Committeeperson

A guide to becoming your neighborhood’s new Committeeperson

Philadelphia’s political parties are holding party elections in 2018, and you can run for a seat in your neighborhood. It’s an opportunity to get involved in local politics, in its earliest and simplest form.

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Here’s a quick FAQ on the 2018 ward elections. Want to sign up, or get more information about how to run? Do that here.

How Do Democrats and Republicans Organize Themselves?

The two major parties have organizational structures at the three levels of government: national (Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee), state (Democratic State Committees and Republican State Committees), and local (Democratic County Committees and Republican County Committees).

In Philadelphia, Democrats and Republicans organize themselves into two organizations,  Democratic City Committee and Republican City Committee. Because Philadelphia City and County share the same borders—and because all politics in Philly is idiosyncratic—our local parties call themselves City Committees, as opposed to County Committees.

The bedrock of the City Committees is the ward system. If you want to influence your party, its positions, and its candidates, the best way to start is by getting involved in City Committee and the ward system.

What is a ward?

For voting purposes, the city of Philadelphia is broken down into 66 wards, and each ward is further broken down into somewhere between 11 and 51 divisions. Most wards have around 25 divisions, and there are supposed to be between 500-1,200 registered voters in each division. Each division is assigned a polling place.

Your division determines where you vote, but the political parties also mobilize this ward map for politics. They do this by using the geography of wards and divisions as the framework for a system of grassroot politics.

Each division is capable of electing two party representatives: the committeepeople. The committeepeople in every ward then elect their ward leader. And finally, the ward leaders elect the Chairs of their respective City Committees.

With this in mind, it’s easy to see how the “ward system,” as it’s often called, can establish deep roots and connections with voters in communities with particularly active ward organizations.

What does a ward leader do?

The ward leaders’ most important job is electing the party Chair every four years. The current party chairs are Congressman Bob Brady on the Democratic side and Mike Meehan on the Republican side.

Within their respective wards, ward leaders’ responsibilities include, but are not limited to:

  • Staffing polling places in each division with a full slate of Board of Elections officials (the people who run your polling place)
  • Recruiting committeepeople for all open seats
  • Endorsing candidates and running a get-out-the-vote (GOTV) program
  • Raising funds—often, but not exclusively, from candidates running for office

Ward leaders are most powerful during special elections. Special elections are held when the current elected official leaves office in the middle of the term, for whatever reason. During special elections, the parties’ nominees for office are nominated by the Democratic and Republican City Committees themselves, rather than by voters in open and competitive primaries.

The practice in Philly during special elections (aka “specials”) is for the ward leaders whose wards overlap the open seat to choose the candidate themselves, often selecting one of their own for the seat. And for some context, the number of special elections averages out to about one per year.

With this in mind, it’s easy to see how the “ward system,” as it’s often called, can establish deep roots and connections with voters in communities with particularly active ward organizations.

What is a Committeeperson?

A committeeperson is kind of like a political block captain. They are the representatives for the city Democratic and Republican parties in your voting division—typically just the 4-5 city blocks near your house. They are the footsoldiers in this system of local, party-driven grassroots politics.

Every four years, each division can elect two  Democratic committeepeople and two Republican committeepeople. There are 1,686 divisions in all, and two committeepeople per party can be elected to each division, so there can be as many as 3,372 committeepeople for each party, for the whole city.  

It’s worth noting that in the 2014 elections, 348 Democratic committeeperson positions went unfilled.

What does a Committeeperson do?

Committeepeople have several important jobs. The first job they have right after they get elected is to vote for a ward leader. That vote happens in a reorganization meeting that takes place a few weeks after the election. If you’re elected committeeperson, you’re supposed to get a letter in the mail informing you of the time and location of the meeting.

Besides that, there is no real instruction manual, and the job is what you make of it. The more effective committeepeople in the city do things like:

  • Registering and reminding their neighbors to vote
  • Sharing their candidate endorsements with voters in their divisions
  • Helping staff their polling place so that everyone has a smooth voting experience
  • Circulating nominating petitions to help candidates get on the ballot;
  • Working with the ward organization to bring elected officials and candidates for office to meet voters in the neighborhood

What is the Typical Time Commitment Involved in Being a Committeeperson?

The committeeperson position is a volunteer role, and as an independently-elected person, you can put as much or as little effort into it as you like. The bare-minimum job description is to show up two days a year on primary and general Election Day to get your neighbors in your division out to vote.

The most active committeepeople will get involved in other neighborhood business like civic association and RCO committees, Friends of School groups, and other local leadership roles, using the position to supplement other activism. They also register voters, help neighbors access constituent services, and closer to Election Day, go door-to-door to promote candidates and raise awareness about the election.

Running a good committeeperson campaign probably takes about 10-15 hours of work between February and May. If you win, you can probably expect to spend 5-10 hours a month on the job during an election month, and a couple hours a month otherwise.

What Impact Could I Have In This Position?

A well-known committeeperson can be very influential and powerful, both within their division, and as a member of the ward committee. Councilmembers and state representatives tend to care what committeepeople think, because they help get out the vote for them—or for their opponents. If you win a committeeperson seat, it’s easier to get elected officials to return your phone calls, and that can give you some extra juice for the things you want to get done for your neighborhood.

A ward endorsement and (credible) get-out-the-vote operation can also make a meaningful difference for political candidates’ electoral prospects. If your group successfully organizes your neighborhood politically, and demonstrates the ability to deliver the neighborhood’s vote for their endorsed candidates, politicians will be more likely to seek your ward’s endorsement, and be more receptive to your policy views once in office.

How Do I Find My Ward and Division?

Use this map to locate the address where you’re registered to vote, and click to show the division.

How Do I Get On the Ballot?

Getting on the ballot for Ward Executive Committee (as it’s listed on the ballot) is very easy, and requires just 10 valid signatures from party members in your division.

Starting on February 13th, you’ll be able to pick up a petition from the City Commissioners’ office (Room 130 at City Hall), along with a walk-list of the registered voters in your division, with their name, address, and party affiliation listed. You can go door-to-door requesting signatures to get on the ballot, or invite known party-registered voters from your division to a petition party at your home. We recommend collecting more signatures than required (25-30) in case your signatures are challenged by an opponent. And really, the petition gathering process is a great excuse to knock doors for your whole division and meet as many potential voters as you can. Petitions need to be notarized, and are due by March 6th, three weeks later. Mark your calendar with these important deadlines.

It is best to turn your petitions in on Friday, March 2nd, a few days before they’re due on March 6th, because the Commissioners’ office gets too crazy on the final day and you could get stuck in line all day. You also don’t want to tip anyone off that you’re running, which is more likely if you turn them in early. It is also best to collect your signatures very early in the process, since voters can only sign petitions for two candidates. The more voters you get to sign your form early on, the fewer voters are available to sign for other candidates, and the more likely it is that you can successfully challenge someone else’s signatures.

How Do I Challenge Someone Else’s Petition?

Email Philly 3.0: [email protected]

Do the Democratic and Republican Committeepeople Ever Run Against Each Other?

No. Because these are party positions, the primary is the only election that committeeperson candidates have to run in.

How Do You Replace a Party Chair or a Ward Leader?

To replace a party Chair, you have to persuade or replace enough ward leaders to vote for someone different. And to replace the ward leaders, you have to win enough committeeperson elections so that a majority of committeepeople will vote for a new ward leader in the reorganization meeting after the May 15th primary.

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