Untangle Local Politics and Elections at Code for Philly's Civic Engagement Launchpad


(Registered Community Organization map | Philadelphia City Planning Commission)

With so many hundreds of minor seats in play, Philly's off-year local elections can be hard to follow from a citywide viewpoint. In fact, it's fairly cumbersome even to figure out which seats might be open in your neighborhood. 

The civic hacking community in Philly has been changing this for the better, taking advantage of the City of Philadelphia's open data policy to make useful maps and visualizations of election data.

There's still a lot of work to be done, though, and if you care about making local elections more user-friendly you should consider coming to Code for Philly's Community Engagement Launchpad kick-off this Friday at 5:30, where you'll have an opportunity to work on several projects that could advance the cause.

Code for Philly has been collecting Problem Statements from different people and organizations (including ours), and there are a couple project ideas we wanted to flag because we think they could make a big difference.

The first one is an Open Seat Finder map for the 2017 Board of Elections primaries.

There are over 1,686 divisions in Philadelphia, and each will elect a 5-member Board of Elections on May 16th. These are very minor (but important!) positions that are nevertheless crucial to the efficient operation of polling places in those divisions. Petition season just finished, and we'll know very soon who collected enough signatures to appear on the ballot.

We'll also find out which divisions still have open seats, and where a write-in campaign could be successful with just a handful of votes. Only about 60% of these seats are currently filled, so opportunities abound. But we first have to know where those open seats are, and an interactive map is the best way for people to quickly check whether a seat is open where they live. 

The second project is related to Registered Community Organization (RCO) bylaws, and decoding what is required to join and vote in local civic organizations, run for board seats, serve on committees, and more. 

Other cities have recognized that this neighborhood layer of local politics exists and that it needs some type of organizational skeleton. Washington, DC has the Advisory Neighborhood Council (ANC) system where candidates are actually on the ballot for local civic board seats, and New York City has the (much less democratic, but still fairly professionalized) Community Board system where community board members apply to serve and are appointed by the Borough President.

Philly got about 10% of the way toward professionalizing and officially recognizing civic associations in the 2012 zoning reform bill, where RCOs were created. Currently all they officially do, as far as the City is concerned, is receive notifications about zoning applications and host meetings about development projects. Whereas ANCs and Community Boards have clearly defined, non-overlapping boundaries, in Philly you see a lot of overlapping RCOs (although the Planning Commission has mostly stopped approving new overlapping organizations.) 

The RCOs hold their elections at all different times of the year, have different rules for joining and voting, can have overlapping boundaries, and do different kinds of activities. Meanwhile, you have a whole other layer of civic association politics with the Neighborhood Advisory Committees, which only exist in neighborhoods where a significant percentage of the population lives below the poverty line.

The NAC members actually get elected at a physical ballot box that's set up at a few local rec centers, they typically serve areas larger than individual neighborhoods, and they're tasked with working on a much broader range of neighborhood issues (sustainability, housing, jobs, planning) than just hosting zoning meetings. It's a bit bizarre that they're only established in high-poverty neighborhoods, and they--not RCOs--arguably should have provided the organizational skeleton for this layer of local politics. 

A comparative analysis of RCO bylaws is a very early step toward making sense of this ecosystem, and will help provide an early basis for citywide organizing in this layer.

The biggest myth about these hackathons is that you need coding skills to participate. Coding skills are necessary, but successful projects also need collaborators with good political, strategic, and design skills too. RSVP here to attend the Friday kick-off, and if you're around, join for the Saturday session too, where a good amount of the work will be happening. 

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