WHAT’S A COMMITTEEPERSON?

OK, it’s 2018. This is game time. If you’re looking for a way to have a direct role in influencing the shape of our city’s government, the best way to have your voice heard is by running for committeeperson.

In this handy guide, we’ll walk you through what a committeeperson is, how they fit into your local government, what they do, and how you become one.

To learn more, make sure to attend our How to Become a Committeeperson seminar on February 15th. Sign up to stay informed. 

If you’ve never heard of a committeeperson before, you’re not alone. Most people in Philly are unfamiliar with the position, and even fewer know who their committee people are. But never fear. We’re here to break it down.

To begin to understand the crucial role of Committee people in the Philadelphia government, it helps to first understand the difference between Government and Political Parties. Let’s explore how the local government is structured. Then, how the local political parties are structured

Government
Most of us know the basics of how the federal government is structured.

Most of us know the basics of how the federal government is structured. The head of the executive branch is the President. The legislative branch is composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and the judiciary is comprised of the judges who sit on the higher courts. The State of Pennsylvania and City of Philadelphia are generally structured the same the way:

State of PA City of Philadelphia
ExecutiveGovernorMayor
LegislativeState Reps and State SenatorsCity Council
JudiciaryJudges*Judges*
*a more thorough explanation of the structure of the judicial branches will be available on our site soon.

Not surprisingly, the people elected to serve in these positions are responsible for running the government i.e. creating policy, writing and enforcing law, etc. These people are affiliated with political parties (primarily Democratic and Republican), but the parties themselves are distinct entities.

Political Parties
Political parties also have a structure.

But the structure of political parties differs from that of the government because the parties do not have a role in running the government. Rather, they are merely organizations designed to support people running for government offices who are affiliated with their party.

BACK TO TOP

Committees

The two major parties structure themselves into “committees” based on geography.

For this discussion, we’ll focus on the Democratic party (but the Republican party operates in the same way).

In PA, there is a Democratic State Committee, and in Philly there is a Democratic City Committee. Each committee has a committee chair. The Chair of the State Committee is Marcel Groen, and the Chair of City Committee is Bob Brady (who is also an elected government official! Confusing, right?)

In Philadelphia, the City Committee endorses candidates, fills vacancies when government officials can’t run or need to leave office, and nominate candidates in special elections. These are the people who control the direction of the Democratic Party in Philly.

Wards
So, in Philly—how do we get from Democratic voters to the Democratic City Committee Chair?

The City of Philadelphia is broken down into 66 wards, and each of these wards is broken into around 20 divisions.

 

Divisions
Divisions, also called precincts, define where you vote.

You’ve probably heard reporters on election night saying something like, “with 90% of precincts reporting, the winner is so-and-so”? Well, that’s what these entities are.

There are 1686 voting divisions in Philly, each of which is around 8 square blocks. These divisions are the smallest political units in the City—by law they contain between 100 and 1200 people.

BACK TO TOP

Which brings us back to committee people

To organize the structure and flow of the party, the voters from each political party (Republican and Democratic) elect two people from each division to represent their neighbors within the party—these people are called committee people.

What does a committeeperson do?

Now that we understand what a committeeperson is and where they fit in to the political party structure, let’s talk about what they do—or rather, what they should do.

Committee people serve as the liaison between their neighbors, the Democratic party, and elected Democratic government officials in Philly. The core of this job is getting out the vote on election day. But this role can—and should be—so much more than that.  Committee people are the bridge between voters and government. This role can be big or small, depending on the person and the division. But the potential for making this role meaningful and impactful cannot be overstated.

Role in elections
Facilitating engagement around elections is arguably the single most important thing a committeeperson does.

As a committeeperson, you can change the way your division votes. You have the power to help your constituents be more or less informed, and to inspire a higher, or lower level of engagement.

 As a committeeperson, your role in elections can be massive. You are responsible for:

  • Educating the people in your division about candidates
  • Informing people about upcoming election timetables so they remember to vote
  • Distributing absentee ballots to those who can’t make it to the polls
  • Recruiting poll watchers to make sure everyone has equal and fair access to vote
  • Getting your neighbors out to vote!

Ballot cards
Committee people are responsible for delivering ballot cards to registered Democrats in the division.

Ballot cards, which some people call sample ballots, are basically endorsements for each office on the ballot. You might remember being handed one (or several) when you last went to the polls. Each ward works a little bit differently; some wards have ballot endorsement cards that are determined by the ward leader, and some wards let each committeeperson develop their own ballot endorsement card to hand out.

Most people have a strong opinion about big races (President, Senator, Congressman), but many people have no idea who to vote for in smaller elections (judicial races, for example). In an ideal world, every voter would make an informed decision about who they think is most qualified. But in reality, many voters rely on these cards to tell them who to vote for when they step into the booth. So, these cards have powerful potential to make a real-world impact on local elections.

BACK TO TOP

Role in constituent services

In addition to election-related activities, committee people play a key role in helping their constituents get the services they need from the government. While these tasks fall directly on elected government officials, committee people serve as advocates for their divisions and help them navigate the often-complicated system. 

Role in the Party

Finally, committee people have a direct role in determining who serves in the leadership positions within the party. Most importantly, committee people elect the Ward Leader, who represents all divisions within the ward on the City Committee. As we learned earlier, the City Committee has a large mandate and influence, and steers the overall direction of the entire party.  

How do you become a committeeperson?

So, maybe you’re thinking, “Sure, I want to be engaged, but I don’t want to run for something.” That’s what many people in our group thought too. But this is not the same as running for a government office. It doesn’t require the same time or financial commitment and it’s much less competitive than the regular “run for office” that you might be envisioning. This is a “party” position, not a “public” position, so there is a lot less on the line for you personally!

Most committee people are elected with only 20–80 votes. Philadelphia 3.0 has a great article about the stats behind committeeperson races and how uncompetitive they are. For example, only 14% of divisions in Philly had a competitive race in 2014. 26% had less than two candidates on the ballot (for two positions!) and 60% had exactly two. After the 2014 election, 10% of committeeperson seats were unfilled. This essentially means that if you run, it’s very likely you will win.

Nuts and bolts
The committeeperson elections are during the 2018 Primary elections on May 15th.

The first step to running is getting your name on the ballot. To do this, you must by submit a nominating petition to City Hall. A nominating petition is a document signed by registered Democrats in your division supporting your run for committeeperson. You only need 10 signatures (!), but a lot of these signatures can get thrown out (if they aren’t legible, if it turns out that person isn’t actually registered in your division, etc.), so we recommend that you knock every door in your division—a great way to get to know your neighbors and grease the wheels for your actual campaign to get elected, which starts after you get on the ballot.

Deadlines
The first day to start getting signatures (and also the first day to submit your nominating petition, if you’re really on your game) is February 13th.

The last day to submit it is March 6th—a tight timeline! Here’s a timeline of key deadlines and deliverables for the 2018 election cycle:

Tuesday 2/13first day to start collecting signatures on your nominating petition
Tuesday 3/6last day to collect signatures and last day to submit your nominating petition
Monday 4/16voter registration deadline for the Primary
Tuesday 5/8absentee ballot applications due
Friday 5/11absentee ballots due
Tuesday 5/15Primary election

If you’re interested in running, please come to our “How to Run for Committeeperson” seminar on February 15th.

We’ll go through details of how to get on the ballot, and the logistics of how to win an election. We will even have paperwork there for you to take home!

It is a shame that more of us don’t know our committee people personally (we certainly didn’t when we formed MPF). But we can change things. Together, we can get more engaged. If you want to have a voice, and to empower your neighbors to have a voice, then run for committeeperson.