In today’s highly partisan political atmosphere, there are still ways to get involved in the electoral process that everyone, regardless of political affiliation, can support.
Dawn Maglicco has found one of them.
Every election, she is out on the streets of Philadelphia, roving from polling station to polling station as a troubleshooter for the Committee of Seventy. She is one of a small but dedicated band of volunteers the century-old electoral watchdog group relies on to keep Philadelphia elections honest and fair.
Maglicco began volunteering for the committee when she moved from Montgomery County to Philadelphia two and a half years ago. Her work—she represents Penn’s interests before city officials—requires her to steer clear of the partisan activity she engaged in as a Democrat in Narberth. Her boss, City and Community Relations Director Glenn Bryan, steered her to Seventy, and as she told us, her work with them has been both educational and enjoyable.
Q. What does the Committee of Seventy do?
A. They have a long, storied history in Philadelphia. They monitor elections. Their main goal is to make sure that elections are free and fair. They also check the voting equipment to make sure it is in proper working order and that the right machines are delivered to the right places. They’re there to serve the people, and they’re made up of any citizen who wishes to be a part of it and work on Election Day.
Q. What do you do for the committee?
A. I enjoy the actual Election Day work most of all. That involves going into the polling places throughout the city after a very short training session to fill out forms and poll the judge of elections at each of the polling places. If people phone in complaints to the committee, they dispatch their volunteers to go and mediate problems or correct information, and call a judge if necessary to inquire about a certain problem or resolve issues on site.
It was a wonderful way, when I first began doing it, to learn the city. That’s how I got introduced to most of the neighborhoods that otherwise I would not have known to go to.
Q. What parts of the city do you usually work in on Election Day?
A. In the primary, I did West Philadelphia. They break up the city into zones based on how many volunteers they have. It’s always better to have a greater number.
This election, I worked in the First and Second Wards in South Philadelphia. Generally, the mood was upbeat. The polling places are run by people from the neighborhood, they’re happy to see their neighbors, they’re doing their civic duty, they have a good time.
Q. Doesn’t that bring you into contact with some of the people you lobby on Penn’s behalf?
A. Yes, it does, but you wear your Committee of Seventy badge and you leave your relationships and partisan leanings behind and you work toward the goal of ensuring a fair and just election. But it is a pleasure to see, when going to the fire station up the street, the people that we know and work with there.
Q. I assume they don’t assign you to polling places near where you live.
A. That is correct. I vote at my own polling place before I leave for the day and join the other volunteers.
Q. Have you ever broken up any campaign high jinks at a polling place?
A. [laughs] They send me into a lot of safe territory where there is a clean operation. People’s passions rise high on Election Day and there are often very minor disputes about how far from an entryway somebody can pass out campaign material.
There was an incident this election where I went to one polling place and police were on the scene. There was a mob on the sidewalk, not blocking the entrance but obviously intimidating people with a half-hour to go before the polls closed.
We get a list of phone numbers to call in the event of a problem. The police, the district attorney, the city commissioners, the Common Pleas Court, the Democratic and Republican City Committees—they all have teams to dispatch when there’s trouble reported. It did make me happy that I didn’t have to go to the list [on Election Day].
Q. What about fistfights?
A. No fistfights for me. They must save their well-muscled volunteers for that.
Q. How did the committee get its name? I mean, who are these “70”?
A. I don’t know. The executive director, Fred Voigt, is an icon in Philadelphia and he is the possessor of all kinds of trivial information about politics in Philadelphia. He’s quite a historian, and I’m sure he’d know.
[We didn’t have to ask Voigt for the answer. The committee’s web site, www.seventy.org, explains that the name comes from the book of Exodus, in which Moses appoints 70 judges to rule on disputes. The committee’s charter calls for a 70-member board composed of community leaders. Vice President for Government, Community and Public Affairs Carol Scheman served on it, and City and Community Relations Director Glenn Bryan is currently a member.]
Originally published on November 13, 2003