Attend our Integrity Icon celebration

On May 23, 2024

RSVP today to attend the 2024 Integrity Icon Philly celebration Thursday, May 23 at the Fitler Club Ballroom at 1 South 24th Street. Doors open at 6pm.


For its fourth year, The Philadelphia Citizen and Accountability Lab will be naming five high-integrity city workers as this year’s Integrity Icons. Join us to celebrate with family, friends, and colleagues. This event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. For questions, please contact [email protected].



Meet our 2024 Integrity Icon Philadelphia Winners

2024 Integrity Icon: Eric Kapenstein

The Deputy City Commissioner helping to oversee election integrity and efficacy cut his teeth in 2020 — and is ready to bring that fairness and accuracy to our next big election

2024 Integrity Icon: Eric Kapenstein

The Deputy City Commissioner helping to oversee election integrity and efficacy cut his teeth in 2020 — and is ready to bring that fairness and accuracy to our next big election

Eric Kapenstein joined the City Commissioners office — the department that runs our elections — six years ago as an entry level clerk. The Northeast Philly native was excited for the job: He was seeking a change from “the ugliness,” he says, of his government relations gig in Washington, D.C. Plus, he got to come home and work under his old boss, then City Commissioner, now Secretary of the Commonwealth, Al Schmidt. Kapenstein loved the municipal department’s purpose and dove right in.

“I made it my business to learn everything I could in order to run elections efficiently and correctly,” he says.

Then 2020 happened. Covid. Ten-hour days … for 340 days. Twenty-four-hour ballot counting in the PA Convention Center. Death threats to his bosses. More Covid. It wasn’t the same kind of ugliness as his old gig, but it was definitely ugly.

But that’s not how Kapenstein sees it. He regards his role — he’s now deputy commissioner for Republican City Commissioner Seth Bluestein, one of three elected City Commissioners — not as a job, or even a career, but a calling. “I grew up in the birthplace of modern democracy. It all started here and spread from here. Voting is pretty much the most important thing people can do to participate, to have a say in the people who represent them,” he says. “Ours is a government of the people, by the people and for the people — and it only works if people’s voices are heard.”

For his painstaking round-the-clock work in 2020, and his dedication to increasing the vote for every Philadelphian in 2024, Kapenstein is one of The Citizen’s 2024 Integrity Icons, awarded to city workers who go above and beyond their job descriptions to serve city residents. Along with the other four Icons, Kapenstein will be honored at a party at Fitler Club on May 23. See the other winners here.


What is an Integrity Icon?

In partnership with DC-based Accountability Lab, The Citizen is the only American city to run an Integrity Icon program. The goal: To name and fame the city workers going above and beyond to make a positive impact in Philadelphia.

This past spring, the public nominated dozens of excellent city workers for the award, using the following criteria: They are a high-integrity public service employee who is respectful and caring; know their work makes a difference to people’s lives; act in a trustworthy and transparent way to solve problems the best they can; treat everyone equally, without regard to politics or influence; and go above and beyond to provide good service to Philadelphians.

A panel of high-integrity judges reviewed the candidates, and selected this year’s honorees. The 2024 winners join 15 other Integrity Icons named by The Citizen since 2021. Read about the others here.


Running elections … in 2020

A lifelong Phillies fan — doesn’t miss a game, even if he has to DVR it — Kapenstein describes his profession as being “a nonpartisan, objective observer who calls balls and strikes.” In other words, he’s an elections ump. Ask his former and current bosses and colleagues — Schmidt, Bluestein, former Supervisor of Elections Garrett Dietz — to describe him, and they’ll use words like “dedicated, “fair,” “overqualified” and “accurate.” Translation: Kapenstein is no Angel Hernández (if you have to ask who Angel Hernández is, please pay better attention to our national pastime).

In 2020, Kapenstein’s title was compliance specialist, which basically meant he was responsible for making sure every single election-related element went perfectly, including voter registration, voting machines, tabulation and mail-in voting, which back then we called, “absentee ballots.”

But perfect was not in 2020’s vocabulary. First, came the pandemic, which shut down everything just as the primary rolled around.

“Covid hit in the spring, and the primary election was scheduled for the spring, so the election was delayed,” he recalls. One of few of his department’s employees who volunteered to work in person, “I had two floors of the main building to myself,” says Kapenstein. (City Commissioners operate out of offices in City Hall and at Columbus Boulevard and Spring Garden Street.)

His job expanded from compliance to one-man-show.

“I would come in, personally pick up the department’s mail and open it, timestamp it, and process applications coming in,” he says. In previous elections, the department averaged about 20,000 absentee ballots. In 2020, they mailed out about 225,000 for the primary alone. “We printed them out on six desktop printers, and had people come in, manually stuff and label the envelopes,” he says, “What we did every single day was akin to what we’d typically do in a week or a month.”

Meanwhile, Kapenstein helped operate 17 satellite election offices and re-programmed the entire elections database — though he’s not a programmer. That last task was especially stressful. “I had to test it vigorously,” he says. “One little mistake could cost people their right to vote.”

Having made it through the primary, the department felt as ready as possible to count the 360,000 ballots that would come in by November 3. Then, Kapenstein says, something “unexpected” happened.

Election upheaval in Philly

As hundreds of temporary workers counted ballots in the PA Convention Center — just like thousands more did across the country — it became clear that: 1. Joe Biden was going to unseat then-President Donald Trump and 2. Trump and his supporters would not concede. Instead, team Trump spouted a stream of election impropriety fake news and filed dozens of lawsuits to try to stop the count. Meanwhile, MAGA nation ramped up life-and-limb threats to election officials nationwide, especially in Philly.

“The vitriol we witnessed in 2020 was not anything anyone saw coming,” says Kapenstein. Before 2020, “election administrations were well respected across the board.” Now, his bosses and their families took on security details. Although Kapenstein himself escaped menace, he felt the pressure acutely, because at that point, his main role was … vote tabulation.

“I was the person most directly responsible for the votes being counted and being counted accurately in the City of Philadelphia,” he says. For nine days, he oversaw the count, sleeping in an adjacent hotel — his family had Covid at the time, so he couldn’t go home. It was surreal.

“There’s always more that I can do. I feel I always have to be here. Call me biased, but I like to think that every election matters and that every vote matters.” — Eric Kapenstein

“The Convention Center had a casino-like environment. You could never tell if it was day or night. The hours just passed continuously,” he says. They were working with brand-new envelope sorting and opening machines that he’d personally “tested and tested and tested,” aware of the threats — and dancing mailboxes — outside, but also, they were in their own bubble.

Count complete, the Commissioners certified the results, Kapenstein went home to Rhawnhurst, got a couple solid nights of sleep, and went right back to work, making sure all 8,500 election board workers got paid for their Election Day work.

Where he is now

Bluestein, Schmidt’s former deputy commissioner, then chief deputy commissioner, and the department’s chief integrity officer for four years, replaced Schmidt as the Republican City Commissioner, and selected Kapenstein as his second. (Bluestein and Kapenstein also happen to be cousins.) His boss had watched Kapenstein work “round the clock” at the Convention Center — and he believed in his colleague’s ideas for improving elections in Philly and beyond.

One big effort they’ve both gotten behind: Expanding language access. By law, Bluestein says, “The City is only required to provide resources in English, Spanish and Chinese.” The pair worked to add six more languages to that list. While voting machines themselves still operate in those three most-spoken languages, voting materials are now available in Cambodian, Vietnamese, Russian, Arabic, Haitian Creole, and Portuguese — Philadelphia’s next six most commonly spoken languages.

Kapestein credits the language expansion idea to his international neighborhood, his proudly international high school — Northeast — and the little girl who lived across the street. Growing up, he watched his 11-year-old neighbor interpret for her Albanian-born parents and family friends. The fifth grader would go with them to doctor’s visits, attorney appointments.

“That’s something that really stuck with me,” says Kapenstein. He also paid attention when his friends spoke other languages at home with their families, and he noticed their moms and dads seemed embarrassed that they weren’t proficient in English. Could these adults — many whom became U.S. citizens — figure out how to register and vote?

Kapenstein wanted “to provide [language] assistance directly, so they don’t feel embarrassed — and to make it a lot easier for them and encourage them to make their voices heard.” The department rolled out the language offerings last year. He and Bluestein are currently working with the Department of State to develop more multilingual voting materials statewide “which is challenging in a presidential election year,” he says. He’s also helping open 10 more satellite election offices across the city, amping up security, and testing and retesting voting systems for another presidential election.

One thing he’s not doing: taking a break. Kapenstein has maxed out the amount of PTO he can bank. If he doesn’t take six days off soon, he’ll lose them.

“My parents would tell you I take my job a little too seriously and that I don’t take enough time off. There’s always more that I can do. I feel I always have to be here,” he says. “Call me biased, but I like to think that every election matters and that every vote matters.”


Eric Kapenstein, Deputy City Commissioner. Photo by Creative Outfit.

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