The road to the White House will, as always, run through Pennsylvania in 2020. A swing state at every other level, Pennsylvania had gone blue in every presidential election since 1988 before Donald Trump swung it Republican in 2016, a shocking victory that has largely been chalked up to his strength in the state’s suburbs and more rural counties. But it wasn’t just his own campaign’s strengths that won him the Keystone State — just as crucial was the drop in turnout in urban areas, including Philadelphia.
Sure, Hillary Clinton won 82% of the vote in Philly, but percentages can be misleading — she beat Trump by about 35,000 fewer votes than Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in the 2012 campaign. Turnout was down in the city’s less affluent wards, and while some of the blame certainly falls on the Clinton campaign, the city itself also deserves some heat for ongoing voting issues.
Even in the 2018 election, when Democrats won some big elections in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia ranked 63rd out of 67 counties in voter turnout. It’s a troubling number, especially in a big city that could use a lot more democracy. And as much as grassroots organizations can work to register and turn out voters, the onus is also on the city to make voting much more accessible. That is the job of the City Commissioner’s office, which oversees Philadelphia’s elections and runs its voter education programs.
So, how do we help reform that little-known but absolutely crucial office? Enter Jen Devor, a long-time community organizer and committeeperson for the city’s 36th ward. She has been working to build grassroots power within Philadelphia’s working communities for over a decade. The Commissioner’s office consists of three members, including two for the majority (Democratic) party, and she’s running in a crowded primary on the idea of turning it into a year-round outreach and education operation, to rekindle democracy in the city and ultimately increase turnout.
Progressives Everywhere spoke with Devor about her campaign, the issues with Philadelphia’s voting system, and how she plans on fixing them.
There are a lot of municipal offices up for grabs this year. Why do you want to run for City Commissioner in particular?
In my senior year of high school, I took a civics class and since then I’ve always been a little bit of a political junkie and fascinated with voting. I volunteered at MTV’s Rock the Vote when I was in college and Headcount and so this office spoke to me. And that’s when I first really started to get more involved with Philly political system.
I’ve been thinking about doing this job since 2012 when I first learned about the office and how it is supposed to operate and function. At the time, I was just graduating from a program called the Center for Progressive Leadership, which is a leadership training program that took us all over Pennsylvania. We went to Harrisburg and Allentown and Pittsburgh and we learned about different municipalities. And every time we came back to Philly, it was just shocking, the way that we operate as a city.
I learned how things were supposed to work versus how things actually work. And I learned about the Commissioner’s office and what a huge, incredible asset it could be, but it was an office that so many Philadelphians didn’t even know existed. I think that this office could be such a huge asset for Philadelphians and there’s such a connection to the state too. We have enough registered voters that if we increase voter turnout, we will win state and national elections for Pennsylvania.
Do you plan on focusing a lot on voter registration?
There’s always more work to be done around voter registration and I think that there are a lot of different opportunities to increase voter registration in Philadelphia. But at the same time, we do have a high number of registered voters and we are a Democratic city. So I wanted to know what Philadelphia was doing to engage people that are registered to vote but don’t come out to the polls twice a year.
We have a low voter turnout rate and a small percentage of our city elects our local officials. But yet we’re a city that has incredible poverty and adult illiteracy rates and a public school system that’s challenged, and so it just doesn’t add up. If we have the registered voters and we’re a Democratic city, why aren’t we seeing the results that you would think we would be?
So what’s the solution?
There’s a lot of people in Philadelphia that don’t even realize that they can vote. Men and women with criminal convictions, those affected by homelessness, those that have limited English proficiency that maybe aren’t getting access to translated services around voting when they into the polls, which is a barrier. So one is making sure every eligible Philadelphian that can vote knows that they can and does so without incident.
I also think that we need to have election day operate better. We have a high vacancy rate of poll workers, we don’t have strong training for people that work the polls. We need to make sure that we’re fully staffed. We need to put a customer service element into the polling work, especially because we’re going to have new machines. We have to make sure that not only the poll workers understand how to use those machines but the voters do, too.
A lot of it is just re-connecting people to the process. Pennsylvania in general has a high rejection rate for registration. My vision is to transform this office into a public information agency, so we’re producing high quality, easy to understand information about voting year-round. And then we’re building coalitions with different organizations that are trusted resources in their communities, whether it be re-entry programs or translators or teachers, committee-people, block captains, to make sure that everyone’s connected.
I’ve done this work on a small scale in my neighborhood and my community and since, I’ve been invited across the city to different civic organizations, to just explain to people what’s going on. It’s not that it’s anyone’s fault. I think it’s by design that some of this stuff is really complicated. It’s scaling that 15-minute conversation with your neighbor and I believe I can do that in the commissioner’s office.
People in cities dominated by one party often wonder why their votes matter.
It is a lot about rebuilding trust with the system. And I think that’s even more reason to have the leadership within the Commissioner’s office because a lot of people do believe their vote doesn’t matter. If we increase voter turnout, we will have more competitive elections and candidates will have to really start to talk about the issues. I mean you have somebody that’s running unopposed that wins by the same few thousand votes every year, I understand why people think that their vote doesn’t matter, because there are no choices.
I think there’s also an issue with how absentee ballots are counted. Every election cycle, there’s a story about how they weren’t counted, going back to the voter registration cards being rejected. So we need a transparent process and talk about why these things are happening and try to figure out both short-term and long-term solutions.
On the campaign trail, every time I tell somebody what I’m running for— and explain what it is because they likely haven’t heard of it — I hear a personal story. About how they tried to switch parties and their registration didn’t transfer over. Or they recently moved within the city and they showed up at their polling place the first day and weren’t on the books. Or, we don’t have voter ID laws but you need a photo ID to vote for the first time at a new polling place, but they weren’t prepared for that. So everyone has that personal story.
You’ve been in Philly politics for a while now, but it can be a pretty closed system. What are you up against?
I’ve done all the jobs that interact with the Commissioner’s office. I have a decade of experience of well-known, quality engagement work. I’ve been a leader in my community and I have an incredible network across the city. So I talk the talk, walk the walk. But at the same time, I am very much a political outsider. I’m not from Philadelphia, I’ve lived here 17 years but I don’t have family legacy here. I don’t come from a political family.
I opened up my PAC in January 2018 and I did that intentionally because I was just so excited to jump into the arena and once I made that choice, why hold back? I also knew that I’m up against a lot and I need to work extra hard for extra long to make sure that I can compete, and I feel like I’ve been able to do that. The city is ripe for opportunity and change and that’s very exciting and I want to come into this office so I can make independent decisions that are the greater good of the community.