Often in the anticorruption world we grapple with the question of how to deal with perpetually corrupt institutions. One example is the Philadelphia City Commission and its elected commissioners. In recent years, Anthony Clark, the Chair of the City Commission got paid despite not showing up to work, while other commissioners have engaged in overt patronage politics, such as doling out jobs to family members and steering city contracts to businesses and institutions run by family members (leading to the federal indictment of the daughter of the long-serving former Chair on corruption charges). And although credible voter fraud charges in Philadelphia are uncommon, the Commission has not done a particularly good job of administering elections, its primary job. For example, in 2012 more than 27,000 registered voters were somehow left out of the official polling books, and had to cast provisional ballots.
Things with the elected Philadelphia City Commissioners have gotten so bad that some (including the Committee of Seventy, a good governance group in Philadelphia, and the city’s two largest newspapers, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News) have called for abolishing the elected positions altogether. The Committee of Seventy has called for replacing the elected City Commissioners with an appointed board of professions to administer Philadelphia’s elections, although its plan is short on details.
This proposal relates to a larger issue with which anticorruption reformers in many jurisdictions struggle: which positions should be elected, and which should be appointed? When is democratic accountability the solution, and when is it the problem? There is no one right answer, of course—it all depends on context. Yet in the specific context of the Philadelphia City Commission, the instinct to eliminate the democratic process is premature for two reasons. Continue reading