Al Schmidt, one of the three officials who run Philadelphia elections, remembers calling up the Election Office soon after he moved here in 2005. He wanted to know the number of voters registered citywide.
“I’d seen something on the news and just wanted to find out how many voters there were,” Schmidt said. “I found a phone number on the Internet and called up, asked the question. The first response was, ‘Are you Democrat or Republican?’ And after that it was, ‘Why did I want to know?’ “
At the time, Schmidt said, he was merely curious. But the more he got involved in local politics, first on the staff of the Republican City Committee, then as the GOP’s candidate for city controller, and, finally, in 2011, winning the Republican city commissioner’s seat, Schmidt said, his initial experience turned into a goal: to make the city’s election information “transparent for anyone, at any time, for any reason.”
Schmidt and his Democratic counterparts, Stephanie Singer and Anthony Clark, have largely made good on that goal with a new website, www.philadelphiavotes.com, that brings the office into the 21st century when it comes to informing the public.
Included on the website, developed with support from Soapbox Solutions L.L.C. under a $10,000 city contract:
Results of every city election since 2007, with returns broken down by each of the 1,687 voting divisions.
Tools that allow voters to type their addresses and find not only their polling places and names and contact information for their elected officials, but a list of election workers lined up to staff each polling place on election day.
Maps galore, showing boundaries for every ward and division, plus every City Council, legislative, and congressional district.
Detailed information about how to run for office, including how to comply with requirements such as campaign finance reports and personal financial disclosures.
A breakdown of the $9 million budget for the Commissioners’ Office, plus transcripts of the commissioners’ meetings.
A list of candidates and ballot numbers for the Nov. 5 general election, which features races for district attorney, city controller, and a slew of judgeships.
“It’s terrific, a very, very good start,” said Ellen Kaplan, deputy director of the nonpartisan election watchdog group the Committee of Seventy. “It’s something we’ve been calling on them to do for many, many years, and I’m glad to see it.”
Kaplan offered several suggestions for improvements, such as offering lists of the parties’ ward leaders and committee people, translations into more languages in addition to the English and Spanish versions now available, and a link to the state Election Code.
Still, she said, “it’s great to have it up there, much improved over anything they had online before.”
Singer, who along with Schmidt campaigned in 2011 for more election transparency and sharing of data with the public, said, “It’s not rocket science. This should have been done a decade ago.”
Singer, too, remembers a first brush with city election officials over information, or lack of it. In 2008, she created her own website to post past election results – which, at the time, weren’t easily available from the commissioners. She paid $195 to buy the data from the commissioners, and she had it up on her website within an hour of receiving it.
“If we want more people to be engaged in Philadelphia’s civic life,” Schmidt said, “we have to provide the information necessary to do it.”