In an uncontested election on March 10, 2014, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was “reelected” with 100 percent of the vote.
Americans usually laugh (if only to keep from weeping) when dictators win 100 percent of the vote in what is clearly a fake election. We know that these elections, which usually also see preposterous 100 percent voter turnout rates, are meant to solidify the dictatorial perches upon which leaders such as Un and the late Saddam Hussein sit.
Americans, of course, recognize that competitive, meaningful elections are the lifeblood of democracy. Elections allow us to overthrow the government if we think it’s doing a bad job. Elections put pressure on our elected officials to do their jobs right, because they know that they’ll have a tough race in front of them if they don’t. Our electoral system wouldn’t work if there were no choices. If we, like the North Koreans, literally have no one else to vote for, then our elected officials have free reign (quite literally) to do whatever the hell they feel like without any fear of repercussions. If they’re not faced with any challenge to their rule, then instead of focusing on their constituents, they can focus on aggregating power, rewarding their cronies, or, even worse, failing to perform even the most basic of their job requirements.
The word “election,” by definition, requires a choice. What a relief it is then to live in a place that doesn’t have sham elections. Right?
In an uncontested election on March 11, 2014, Philadelphia Congressman Chakah Fattah was “reelected” with 100 percent of the vote.
In an uncontested election on May 19, 2015, Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke was “reelected” with 99.84 percent of the vote. (There were 25 write-ins.)
In uncontested elections on November 3, 2015, Clarke and six other district Council members will be “elected” with basically 100 percent of the vote.
In all of these cases, the candidates had or have zero challengers on the ballot.
What the hell, Philadelphia?
Modern representative democracy (AKA “the election process”) was practically invented here in Philadelphia. But our elections feel just like the royal coronations that the Founders worked so hard to break free from. Much like North Koreans have no choice but to keep Kim Jong Un in power, Philadelphians have no choice but to keep Clarke, Mark Squilla, Jannie Blackwell, Bobby Henon, and Brian O’Neill in power, since none of them faced a challenger in either the primary or general elections.
Here’s the thing: Both parties are to blame. The Republicans, shamefully, don’t even pretend to challenge the vast majority of these elections. I’m not going to say that Melissa Murray-Bailey has a snowball’s chance against Jim Kenney and the Democratic machine, but at least if we found out tomorrow that Kenney had committed some terrible atrocity, we as voters would have an alternative. But when the likes of Fattah are under federal investigation and there isn’t even a token Republican there to clean up the mess if (or, as it’s now known, “when”) he gets indicted? It’s pathetic. Especially with the rates at which our area elected officials get indicted. (See: This. And this. And this.)
Modern representative democracy (AKA “the election process”) was practically invented here in Philadelphia. But our elections feel just like the royal coronations that the Founders worked so hard to break free from.
Everyone cites the famous 7-to-1 registration deficit that Republicans face as a reason for why they don’t bother showing up to an election. But Republicans don’t see a 7-to-1 deficit in votes. Not even close. In fact, in Mayor Nutter’s re-election in 2011—which was the most foregone conclusion of elections in recent memory—the final tally was 74 percent Democrat to 21 percent Republican. Sure, 3-to-1 is a veritable beating, but imagine if Mayor Nutter had an ill-timed scandal break in 2011?
The Democrats, though, are even more to blame. They’ve built a powerful political machine far more interested in consolidating power than in building a strong, effective government. And they use intimidation to keep their ranks tight. At one point prior to the May primary, a friend of mine joked that he might write in his own name rather than vote for a councilperson who was running uncontested. He was told by several Democratic campaign staffers that if he performed even this modest (and basically meaningless) symbolic act of defiance, there would be serious consequences, and he could basically kiss his political career goodbye.
That powerful machine has the resources to crush any insurgent or independent campaign. This is why incumbents almost never lose, even when they are challenged, no matter how terrible or corrupt they are. Here in Philadelphia, 70 percent of our general elections for district council seats are uncontested. In fact, half of our district council members faced no opposition in the primary or general, meaning they could have, say, been convicted of driving a government-owned vehicle while intoxicated and still won.
Other major cities don’t seem to have this problem. In New York City, for example, only six of the 51 district council races (12 percent) were unopposed in their most recent election. In Washington, DC, not a single 2014 council race was uncontested. We are, it seems, unique in our utter lack of democracy.
So what’s different about New York and DC? New York has strong Democratic and Republican parties that both held robust and competitive primaries; it also has several other smaller parties. Despite a voter registration gap similar to Philadelphia’s, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg were both elected mayor as Republicans; Bloomberg eventually switched to Independent, and was still reelected. In fact, prior to current Mayor Bill DeBlasio, New York City’s highest post hadn’t been held by a Democrat since 1993. Somehow, Republicans in New York, unlike in Philly, have figured out a way to differentiate themselves from the polarizing national party and be competitive in citywide elections.
On the surface, DC is much more similar to Philadelphia. Their Republican party is so weak that they failed to even run a candidate in the most recent mayoral election, an act even more pathetic than what we usually get from our Republican party here. But former Republican Councilman David Catania did run as an Independent; he lost by a 54-to-34 margin, with another Independent candidate winning about seven percent of the vote. At least in DC, there is some significant dissenting minority to hold the Democrats accountable.
Half of our district council members faced no opposition in the primary or general, meaning they could have, say, been convicted of driving a government-owned vehicle while intoxicated and still won. (See: Parker, Cherelle.)
But all is not lost for Philadelphia, as this election cycle may have shown. The primary for Council-at-large seats included an encouraging crop of political newcomers, some of whom were actually elected. While Bailey is not exactly lighting up the Mayoral race, the Republican party—under new leadership—did at least reach out to some potential competitive nominees, like Sam Katz and Ron Castille. And Philadelphia is the launching pad for CrowdPac, which allows anyone to nominate candidates for office, and pledge money to support them. It hasn’t made much of a dent yet, but the race for Fattah’s seat may be its testing ground.
In the end, maybe Philadelphia is unique not because of how we are constructed politically, but who we are as a city and as citizens. Are we content to be controlled by Tammany Hall-style party bosses who issue decrees from smoke-filled rooms? If not, it’s time that we stepped up and did something about it.