Ward Leaders Shouldn’t Be the Ones to Pick Special Election Nominees

A few months ago we wrote about how 5th District state Senator John Sabatina was chosen by the city’s Democratic Party for a “magic seat” on the Court of Common Pleas, which then set up a special election scenario for his district. Sabatina had won the primary nomination for a 4-year term just last spring, so the winner of the special election will serve the entire term. 

When combined with the guilty verdict in 6th District Councilmember Bobby Henon’s trial, those openings will substantially reshuffle who represents a few different districts in Northeast Philly. Democratic ward leaders this week chose fellow ward leader Shawn Dillon of the 66th ward as the Democratic nominee for the special election to fill out the rest of Sabatina’s 4-year term. For Henon’s seat, ward leaders are expected to select state Rep. Mike Driscoll as the Democratic nominee, creating yet another opening for an elected seat that would then need to be filled via a special election where the ward leaders again pick the Democratic nominee, and functionally, the eventual office-holder.

Notice who is not at all included in the process of selecting all these office-holders: the voters!

While it would perhaps be unreasonable to hold a whole open primary election to choose the party nominee every time there’s a special election scenario, there is still an option available to have 100 or so elected ward committee people review and vote on nominations, rather than leaving the choice up to just 4 or 5 ward leaders who are themselves a whole step removed from a direct election by the voters. 

That’s the premise of the “Open Wards” movement which holds that party committee people—who are directly elected by their neighbors on the ballot at the precinct level—should have the voting power in their wards and in the parties writ large. 

If Shawn Dillon is going to serve out John Sabatina’s entire 4-year Senate term that he was just elected to, shouldn’t more than 10 people get a say? From the Open Wards perspective, the answer is an emphatic Yes.

Starting this winter, Philadelphia residents who want to see the parties start to operate differently have an opportunity to take matters into their own hands by running for a committee person seat in their voting division. These positions matter because they are responsible for getting out the vote in their immediate neighborhoods, and because in some wards, they get a vote on primary endorsements for various offices, including the Mayor and City Council in 2023.

Each voting division can elect up to two Democratic committee people and two Republican committee people, and it only takes 10 signatures to get on the ballot. A three-week petition collection period starts on February 15th, after which point you can start collecting signatures. The election is on May 17th and it typically takes 40-60 votes to win in most divisions, or sometimes more, as the case may be. Counting both parties, more than 6,000 of these division-level seats will be on the ballot in May, and we’d encourage anybody with an interest in local politics to consider running. 

In the last committee person election in 2018, the number of “open wards” doubled after pro-open-wards candidates won enough seats in some wards to force a change, and in 2022 there are more opportunities than ever to expand that map.

Watch a video of the recent “How to Become a Committee Person” webinar from Open Ward Philly from earlier this week, and read our Ward Elections 101 FAQ for more information on what this is all about, and why and how to run. 


Philadelphia 3.0 will once again be providing information, networking, and other services for people considering making a run for committee person seats, so if you’re planning on running this year or you’re thinking about it, make sure to sign up on our form to get more information.

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  • Jon Geeting
    published this page in Blog 2022-01-18 11:00:10 -0500