Last week’s primary election was historic: We elected our first Black female mayoral nominee, first out LGBTQ Council nominee, and first South Asian and immigrant Council nominee. Pols, for and against these candidates, are erupting with “hot takes” on how they won. But lost in the hubbub is how voters decided other ballot items.
Also on the ballot were four proposed changes to the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter. These Charter amendments appear on the ballot as “yes” or “no” questions. One of the Charter changes on the ballot would have made recruitment for the Citizens Police Oversight Commission (CPOC) easier. But voters rejected it.
This is rare. Voters’ tendency to vote affirmatively when choosing between approval and disapproval has led to the overwhelming success of most ballot questions. Ballot questions almost never fail. So what happened this time?
What the Charter Amendment was about
Here’s the question Philadelphians saw on their ballots: “Should The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to make employees of the Citizens Police Oversight Commission exempt from civil service hiring requirements?”
- Analyzes the policies, practices, and customs of the Philadelphia Police Department;
- Reviews police department policies and procedures;
- Holds public meetings to discuss issues around police matters; and
- Facilitates community complaints against police officers.
Because CPOC was created less than three years ago, they’re just beginning to hire. Some of the positions they hope to add include investigators, a complaint manager, a director of administrative prosecutions, and a complaint intake specialist. It’s harder to create and staff those positions because the Commission is bound by the laborious civil service system.
Ballot questions almost never fail. But, this time, a ballot question did, and we should explore why.
Employees who take the civil service exam are often union workers with salary caps who pass a lengthy and competitive hiring process. Other City employees — like Mayoral staff, Council staff, Department Commissioners, and other senior government officials — are exempt from the civil service exam. So, in those roles, there’s more personnel flexibility and competitive salaries, which are necessary for senior government roles.
Personnel flexibility and competitive salaries are two major reasons Council wanted to change the Charter to allow CPOC staff to be civil service exempt. It would have made recruitment easier for the Commission, which is what the ballot question sought voters’ approval for. This is necessary because CPOC is meant to oversee police conduct, and that can’t happen effectively without sufficient staffing.
Opposition to the Charter Amendment was slim and ineffectual
When the Amendment was winding through Council, it wasn’t nearly as controversial as the tight election results may lead one to think it was. Opposition was scant. Council passed the Amendment with only Councilmember Brian O’Neill, the sole Republican Councilmember, voting against it.
Aside from O’Neill, the Committee of Seventy also expressed reservations. Seventy submitted testimony objecting to the Amendment because it created a “carveout” to the civil service system instead of addressing “underlying issues in recruitment, hiring, retention and promotion.”
Their testimony reasoned that “by creating a special carveout for [the Citizens Police Oversight Commission], important though the agency is, we risk opening the door to a cascade of further exemptions.” But Council was unpersuaded and passed the Amendment for voters to decide on, despite Seventy’s objections.
Once the Amendment reached voters, AFSCME, a labor union, recommended a no-vote against the Amendment. This should be expected because AFSCME represents government workers, and exempting CPOC staffers from the civil service exam means eliminating those staffers’ unionization capability.
But, because of the onslaught of campaigning from Mayoral and Council candidates, it’s unlikely that messaging about a technical Amendment would have stuck with voters enough to kill it. So, the answer to why voters rejected the Amendment can’t be found in who opposed it. The language of the ballot question, however, may offer a clue.
The ballot question’s wording scared voters
The words “police” and “exempt” were in the same sentence. To someone unfamiliar with the Citizens Police Oversight Commission — and I suspect most people are unfamiliar with the Commission — it probably seemed like the ballot question was about whether the City should cut slack to an entity related to policing. If I’m right that that was voters’ perception, that would have scared them, motivating them to vote against the Amendment.
Seventy’s Pat Christmas agrees that that might explain this, saying, “Some voters may have presumed that there is going to be some special exemption or carveout for police.” This would have been “out of line” with public concerns, Christmas says. He also credited the Amendment’s failure to voter uncertainty, saying, “Uncertainty about what this Commission is and what it’s for and uncertainty about what civil service is, opened up the door for the question to be disapproved.”
Of course, there’s no foolproof way to know what went through people’s heads as they voted. But this isn’t pure guesswork. Look at how close the vote was. 119,918 people voted for it. 136,213 people voted against it. That’s a razor-thin 6 percent difference. A vote that close, you would’ve thought it was the most controversial vote of the election.
Voters disapproving the Amendment isn’t the worst part of this. The worst part is that this was likely a mistake.
Divisiveness over something so benign makes little sense unless voters misunderstood what they were asked. A possible explanation is that voters saw “police” and “exempt” in the same sentence, got scared, and voted no.
The idea that voters can be turned off by how a ballot question’s phrased isn’t new. Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, when explaining voters’ inclination to vote yes on ballot questions they don’t understand, quipped that using the word “tax” in a ballot question could end voters’ yes streak. It’s possible that happened last week with the CPOC civil service ballot question. But instead of “tax,” the words that scared voters were “police” and “exempt.”
Because voters disapproved the Amendment, the Citizens Police Oversight Commission will continue bearing the weight of our archaic civil service hiring process. We all should want CPOC — designed to hold the Police Department accountable — to be well-staffed. But, last week, voters shot that down.
To be clear, voters disapproving the Amendment isn’t the worst part of this. The worst part is that this was likely a mistake. Voters rejected emboldening a community-led police watchdog commission because they were confused and scared by how it was presented. Not because they made an intentional choice to disapprove of it. It was whoops! democracy by accident, and that’s alarming.
Jemille Q. Duncan is Senior Policy Advisor to Councilmember Anthony Phillips and a Gates Scholar at Swarthmore College.