Philadelphia Works to Undo Years Of Democratic Machine Politics

Critics say the city's voting process has been corrupted because of the failure of Democratic officials to enforce election laws

SIX months after its most fraud-ridden election in decades, the cradle of American democracy is reeling.

Earlier this year, a federal judge, citing evidence of ``massive absentee ballot fraud,'' reversed the results of a race for state Senate in Philadelphia.

In March, the state attorney general indicted the Democratic candidate in the race and two of his campaign workers on charges of violating state election laws. More indictments are expected this spring.

The scandal comes as the city's Democratic leaders, led by Mayor Edward Rendell, are trying to transform Philadelphia's national image from that of a decaying, politically corrupt city to a thriving center of service industries and tourism headed by an innovative government.

``It's not a good sign,'' says Mr. Rendell, who backed the Democrat in the race and loaned his campaign $50,000, ``but other than this I think you'd have to go back a decade at least to find corruption among elected officials in Philadelphia.''

The charges in the race, which decided which party would control the evenly divided Pennsylvania state Senate, are wide ranging.

Federal Judge Clarence Newcomer said in a Feb. 18 ruling that Democrat William Stinson's campaign ``conducted a widespread and deliberate scheme throughout the Latino and African American areas to ... illegally obtain absentee ballot votes.''

Judge Newcomer also said that Democratic city election officials ``participated in the scheme.''

Dozens of absentee ballots were cast in the names of people who were deceased or had moved out of Philadelphia or the state, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Dozens of mostly Latino and African American voters have testified in court that they were misled by Democratic campaign workers about the voting process.

Judge Newcomer ruled that so many absentee ballots were improperly cast in the November 1993 election that no absentee ballots should be counted in the race. Republican Bruce Marks, who received 564 more votes than Democrat Stinson in machine voting on election day, was declared the winner in the overwhelmingly Democratic district.

``There are systemic problems with the electoral system in Philadelphia,'' Mr. Marks says, ``because of the long-time failure of [Democratic officials] to fairly enforce election laws.''

Marks is also critical of the mayor for not moving more quickly to condemn the activities.

``Ed Rendell has shown that partisan politics are more important to him,'' Marks says, ``than the image of Philadelphia in other parts of the country.''

Rendell says he is waiting for the state attorney general to conclude his investigation and that the judge should have ordered a new election to decide the issue.

He says monetary incentives that were used to encourage Democratic campaign workers to bring in absentee ballots led to the fraud and should be outlawed.

Rendell says he is also proposing the creation of a civil service position to oversee the board of elections. The board is currently overseen by elected officials, and Democrats have dominated city politics since 1951.

Frederick Voigt, executive director of the election watchdog group Committee of Seventy, says a nonpartisan statewide elections board similar to the Federal Elections Commission should also be created to monitor elections and interpret election law.

Each county in the state currently interprets the law differently, he says, and some election workers fear being prosecuted for election practices that their county allows, but others do not. Mr. Voigt says that was a factor in last Tuesday's state primary, when more than a dozen polling places in the city opened hours late due to a shortage of election workers.

``[The fraud and the delay] was not business as usual in Philadelphia,'' Voigt notes, ``though people might perceive it that way.''

Three of the city's congressmen, its City Council president, and several other officials were convicted of bribery in Abscam and other investigations of the early 1980s.

Rendell, who has been portrayed as a mayoral role-model in the national media since averting city bankruptcy and winning con-cessions from municipal unions in 1992, predicts the scandal will not revive the city's reputation for corruption. ``I see no evidence of that at all,'' he says. ``You compare us over the last two or three decades with Chicago and we look like a white knight.''

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