Written by Tabatha Abu El-Haj, JD, PhD, associate professor at Drexel University’s Kline School of Law. Abu El-Haj is a First Amendment scholar and writer on American democracy.
Each era of American politics has its distinct challenges. Today, our political parties are not corrupt, they are cut off from the people they represent. Candidates and parties are too concerned with wealthy donors and unrepresentative activists, and it hasn’t just impacted policymaking from Harrisburg to Washington, DC. – but also the breadth and depth of political participation. That’s why question #2 deserves your attention in the upcoming primary in June.
A “yes” vote for Question 2 will allow middle-class municipal workers – who are more representative and who have extensive commitments and ties to the city and its residents – to engage in organizing and grassroots political campaign. This is an important step toward grounding political parties and elected officials in the experiences of ordinary Philadelphians.
Philadelphia’s restrictions on partisan activities by appointed officials and employees are among the strictest in the nation. Unlike in most major cities, city employees are prohibited from distributing official campaign materials or participating in call-to-vote activities organized by candidates or political parties. New York, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, on the other hand, allow public employees and officials to volunteer directly with any partisan campaigns in their spare time as long as they do not use city resources or wear city uniforms.
When Philadelphia decided to impose these severe restrictions on the political activities of its municipal employees nearly seventy years ago, the city was struggling to curb the corruption associated with powerful party machines. Today, the civil service system for city employment is well established. Although corruption scandals erupt from time to time, the standard of selection based on merit rather than nepotism for government jobs is entrenched.
And yet, the Philadelphia Charter limits its nearly 30,000 employees to political participation. By prohibiting all but the most individualized forms of politics (individual expressions of opinion and isolated campaign donations), the Home Rule Charter effectively channels meaningful political activity outside of the official party and campaigns in ways that strengthen the partisan polarization that destroys our democracy. This is because city workers are authorized to undertake similar field actions sponsored by outside groups and unions.
While this distinction may seem trivial to those focused on results, it affects how our political parties operate. Drained of volunteers and members, our political parties have become overly attentive to ideologically extreme and socio-economically unrepresentative activists and donors. The result is candidates who are often too often disconnected from the experiences of ordinary Philadelphians. Relaxing existing restrictions to allow municipal workers to engage in face-to-face politics, volunteering and voting is an important step towards rebalancing political influence.
City employees bring several things to the table. Municipal workers are likely to have broader and more representative social networks along the axes of race, socio-economic status and age. They understand how government works and are less likely to be hyper-partisan. They thus promise to be an important source of information in an age of misinformation and an important link in strengthening the links of candidates and political parties with the life experiences of their constituents.
It must also be said that the Philadelphia restrictions are no longer constitutionally defensible. The landscape of First Amendment doctrine has changed significantly since similar restrictions on government employees were upheld by the courts in the 1970s. Given their stringency, the city’s current regulations are vulnerable to a challenge from the First Amendment, and court-imposed reform would likely be far more brutal.
The proposed amendment to question 2 is carefully designed to address the risk of corruption returning. The proposed repeal plays it safe. Officials and appointees would be allowed to volunteer in non-managerial roles to support a statewide and national candidate during off-duty hours and without using city resources. But existing political campaign participation rules for city offices or Philadelphia-based state offices would continue. Additionally, employees whose work is related to law enforcement, city commissioners and the ethics board will remain subject to tighter restrictions.
City employees should be allowed to participate in peer-to-peer exchange activities organized or sponsored by a political candidate or party, rather than paying strangers to do this work. A vote in favor of Ballot Question #2 on Tuesday, June 2 is a vote to counterbalance the influence of donors — big and small — and to ground political parties and elected officials in the experiences of ordinary Americans.
Media interested in speaking with Abu El-Haj can contact Emily Storz, Chief Information Officer at [email protected] Where 215-895-2705.