Philadelphia’s City Council is one of the best opportunities for independent political candidates to win a seat in an important office. The 1951 City Charter established a 17-member Council consisting of 10 District and seven At-Large Council Members. Democrats could easily win all seven At-Large seats, but parties are only allowed to nominate five candidates. The Charter guarantees two of the seven At-Large seats to a party other than the majority. Since 1951, the At-Large seats have always gone to five Democrats and two Republicans. Democrats compete in their primary, and then nominate five candidates who easily win in the general election. Republicans also nominate five candidates, but then they compete against each other in the general election for the two minority-party seats.
How Independents can win
This year there were four independent candidates on the ballot for the At-Large seats. That’s as many as the last three elections (2003, 2007, and 2011) combined. Not only were there more on the ballot, they also earned more votes than ever before.
Andrew Stober was the highest polling independent candidate for an At-Large Council seat in Philadelphia with 16,051 votes. That’s a little less than half of what he needed to win, but it was also a dramatic increase from previous years. Stober received more votes than all independent and write-in At-Large Council candidates from the 2003, 2007, and 2011 elections combined.
Also on the ballot was Green Party candidate Kristin Combs, who received 11,169 votes. This was less than a third of what she needed to win, but showed that she was the strongest Philadelphia Green Party candidate in years (maybe ever). Combs, a public school teacher, ran on a platform of building better schools, and attempted to educate voters on Philadelphia’s “Crazy Election Math” involved in winning those two minority -party seats on City Council.
For Stober, Combs, or another independent to win, they need Democratic and bullet voters. At the polls, voters can select up to five At-Large Council candidates. With this system, bullet voting is when a voter selects only one candidate at the polls. In theory, if enough voters bullet vote it can give that candidate an advantage. Republicans and independents need bullet voters to win At-Large Council seats. A person casting a vote for both an independent and Republican candidate benefits neither.
Combs, the Green Party candidate, encouraged Democrats to vote for four Democrats and herself. She argued that if even a small fraction of Democrats voted for independents, it would enable an independent victory while not hurting Democratic candidates: “Even if every Democratic voter in the city randomly switches one of their five votes to Kristin, all five Democrats on the ballot will still win — in order to lose, a Democrat would have to fall to eighth place. And we all know that’s not going to happen.”
The decline of the Philly GOP
November 3, 2015 was the worst election ever for Republicans in Philadelphia. Melissa Murray Bailey was the lowest polling Republican mayoral candidate ever, receiving just 31,140 votes, 13.21% of the votes cast. Christopher Sawyer, candidate for Sheriff, was the highest polling Republican this year with 41,085 votes, but he lost his race with just 20.83% of the vote.
The two victorious Republican At-Large candidates, David Oh and Al Taubenberger won the minority-party seats with just over 34,000 votes each. The five Democratic At-Large candidates averaged 140,593 votes each.
Democrats have controlled city government since 1951, but the GOP has run some competitive races. As recently as 1999, Sam Katz (R) came very close to a victory over John Street (D) in the mayoral race. Street defeated Katz by just 7,228 votes; 211,136 to 203,908. Katz received 49.12% of the vote. That was the last time the Philly GOP was competitive in the mayor’s race. In the three most recent mayoral elections (2007, 2011, and 2015) Republicans have received a combined 117,721 votes. This hasn’t just kept a Republican out of the mayor’s office, it has hurt their candidates down-ballot as well.
It’s also helpful for independents that the Philly GOP has had declining support at the polls for over a decade. In 2003, the top-polling GOP At-Large Council candidate had 145,852 votes. In 2007, 76,937. In 2011, 48,675. This year, 34,327. That’s a 76.46% decline in 12 years. It’s great news for independent candidates, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. A strong Republican mayoral candidate or an unpopular Democratic mayor at the top of the ticket could boost GOP turnout and the party’s City Council candidates.
Despite their recent struggles it would be premature to declare the death of the Philly GOP. They have controlled Northeast Philadelphia’s 10th District since 1980, and they are better organized and funded than most independent candidates. Republicans also have a strong state party, and just this year elected Martina White in Philadelphia’s State House District 170 where Democrats hold a 2:1 voter registration advantage.
There’s also David Oh, Republican Councilman At-Large. Although Oh has received fewer votes each year since he first ran in 2003, he’s still a well-connected moderate Republican who is endorsed by unions, newspapers, the chamber of commerce, and two former PA governors, including Democrat and former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell. Finally, Oh is one of the biggest beneficiaries of bullet voters.
It won’t be easy for independents to win those At-Large seats from Republicans, but it is easy to see how it could be competitive. If Philadelphia Republicans continue to lose votes and independents get organized, then 2019 will be the best opportunity ever for independent candidates to win seats in Philadelphia’s city government.