Philadelphia has a long and proud history, but for our purposes today I’m most concerned with February 2, 1854. This was the date of the infamous ACT OF CONSOLIDATION.
I don’t know why I cap-shouted that. Or wrote “infamous.” The Act of Consolidation was a fairly straightforward expansion of the city in the 19th century. Municipalities surrounding the smaller pre-1854 city of Philadelphia were gobbled up in that year. As a result, the number of “wards” in the city would dramatically increase.
How the ward system in Philly got started
Most big cities like Philadelphia don’t have “ward systems.” Ours goes back to the first settlers of Philadelphia who brought from England basic divisions of municipal organization. Counties were divided into townships, boroughs and districts. Cities were divided into wards. The first official division of the city into wards happened in 1705, mostly as a means of organizing police routes. By 1825, there were 15 of them.
Around 1840, Philadelphia hit a population boom. The number of people living outside of the city overtook the number living within. Folks started calling on the government for a consolidation of the entire county into a single large city. This produced the 1854 Act of Consolidation, which increased the number of wards from 15 to 24.
As the number of people grew, so too did the number of wards. By 1887 there were 30. By 1898 there were 40. The 50th came in 1932. By 1966, the government decided to do a grand redivision of the entire city. This is how Philadelphia landed at 66 wards, the number we still have today.
So that’s how we got to where we are.
What is a ward system? How does it work?
According to the Philadelphia Department of Records, “The ward always has been, and still is, the indivisible unit for tax and election purposes.” A ward is the smallest political unit for taxes and elections. And let’s look at that last part, because “election purposes” is where wards really shine. Or don’t, depending on how you feel about them.
There is a political unit below a ward—a district. But for tax and election purposes nothing can be divided smaller than a ward. Every four years registered voters of each district elect two committeepeople for their party. The committeepeople from those districts (two Democrats and two Republicans from each) make up their “ward committee.” In total, there are 66 ward committees, and they vote amongst themselves to elect 66 “ward leaders.”
Ward leaders (Democrat and Republican) are the 66 big fish in the smallest ponds of the city government. And voters get to elect them. Yay!
Indirectly, that is.
Wha? Indirectly? Like the Electoral College?
Yes, like the Electoral College, but with even less accountability. Yay!
See, ward committeepeople are tasked with electing a ward leader, but it’s easy for incumbent ward leaders to become entrenched. Here’s why: Ward leaders are in charge of endorsing candidates for election. This includes not only presidential, gubernatorial and congressional candidates, but committee candidates too.
That seems like a bit of a conflict of interest, doesn’t it? And in some wards the leaders aren’t so much chosen by committeepeople as committeepeople are chosen by ward leaders.
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While it’s not impossible to win a committeepeople election without your ward leader’s support, it sure helps to have that backing since most people who go to the polls couldn’t tell a committeeperson from a random exotic fruit. Go ahead, shout out the name of the last committeeperson you voted for. Gold star to readers who yelled any name at all because I couldn’t possibly check. For most of us, we can’t name our own ward leader, let alone any of the possibly dozens of committeepeople.
One thing you may remember as you think back on your last trip to the polls (which for the love of God better have been recently) is a piece of paper handed to you by a volunteer from your registered party. This paper, known as a “sample ballot” would have conveniently listed every person you should vote for. These candidates were selected (drum roll) by your ward leader. And that’s no small amount of power, because let’s be honest, when you step into that booth you probably aren’t going to know whether to vote for Delores Stuckey Fuggs (an actual committeeperson elected in 2014) or Bathilda Bagshot (a Harry Potter character because it literally doesn’t matter to most people).
What do ward leaders do?
Philly’s ward system, once subdivisions within the city organized around police beats, are now powerful political entities whose leaders:
- Decide which candidates the ward is going to endorse in elections.
- Create sample ballots for those of us too lazy to learn candidates for office.
- Organize get-out-the-vote initiatives (which can include driving to pick up voters unable—or once again too lazy—to get to the polls).
- Oversee the distribution of “street money” (money given to volunteers to do 3, usually amounting to about $100 per committeepeople).
Street money comes with its own issues since it consists of untraceable cash payments to committeepeople given by campaigns for things like gas, flyers and coffee. While $100 per person doesn’t seem like a ton of money, $100 for each of the 1,500 committeepeople in Philadelphia is. There have even been accusations of people pocketing this street money because… Philly. This is apparently known as “back-porch money.” As in, “It’s not enough to build a house, but it may be enough to add a [back] porch.”
If you’re looking to dip your toe into Philly politics at the most basic level, you would need to get on the ballot of your district’s race for committeeperson (something you can do with just 10 signatures). Then you’d distinguish yourself enough to get elected by voters who usually don’t know what a committeeperson is. And finally, you’d get your committee to vote for you as ward leader. And hey, there’s even a hundred bucks in it for you.
RELATED: Our FAQ tells you everything you need to know to run for a committeeperson seat in Philadelphia
Philly’s in a weird position when it comes to its antiquated ward system
It provides services to the voters of the city, especially around election time, but the drawback is, like anything political in Philadelphia, susceptibility to influence and outright graft. Taking a random sampling from Democratic ward leaders in 1992, we see that five would ultimately be charged with “election law violations or acts of corruption.” But you’d also find a future mayor (Michael Nutter), a city council president, and a future congressman.
Former governor Ed Rendell spoken out a few years ago about the “petty interests” of ward leaders and their propensity for letting power get to their heads. “They all want their little places of control. It’s very hard to keep the organization strong given all the corruption.”
Congressman Bob Brady rebutted that statement with typical Philly politeness: “He liked the power of the ward leaders when they were endorsing him for governor and mayor. Tell him to get over it.”
RELATED: Want better democracy? Open wards for all would create a more democratic decision-making process among the lowest elected bodies in the city.
Whatever criticisms or praise Philadelphia’s ward system may earn, it could be headed for the trash heap of history, anyway. Social media is becoming the primary platform for organizing get-out-the-votes, and online voting would theoretically erase the need for wards and their polling locations all together.
Only time will tell.
But until that time, political parties in Philadelphia are going to spend cash to get you to vote for them. The ward system is how that cash (and influence) is doled out. “Our turnout is a disgrace,” quipped Congressman Brady, “we do everything we can to get people out. We spend a lot of money. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
Here’s to money and politics. 😏
Header photo by Sabina Louise Pierce