The Casting of Lots

The Casting of Lots

“A coffee can is not hackable.”- City Commissioner Al Schmidt

Commissioner Schmidt’s sentiment was tried-and-true this Coffee Can Day as candidates for city-level offices drew their ballot positions following a decades-old Philly tradition: An old coffee can. Plastic, numbered balls. And luck of the draw.

     TariqSelectionphotoshop.jpg   hornhardartPhotoshop.jpg   JackSelectionphotoshop.jpg                

PHOTO CAPTION: Tariq El Shabaz grins and draws his number (left); The infamous Horn & Hardart Can (center); Jack O'Neill reacts to his last-place ballot position (right).             

While voters ideally select candidates based on their qualifications and campaign platforms, in races attracting a lengthy list of contenders and less public attention, the order in which candidates are listed on the ballot has been proven to have a significant effect on the number of votes a candidate will get. In fact, according to one recent analysis of local Democratic judicial races by Philly-based Econsult Solutions, a good ballot position matters more than the recommendations of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Bar Association, and the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee. In some percentage of races, then, it is inevitable that the winner will be determined by the order in which the candidates’ names are printed on the ballot.

So how do we choose ballot position in primary races in Philadelphia? Under Pennsylvania law, “candidates shall in all cases be arranged [on the ballot] in the order determined by the casting of lots...” Pa. Election Code, § 1002(b). For local judicial races with dozens of candidates, ballot position is especially important. That drawing is scheduled to take place in Harrisburg on Friday, March 17 with one local judicial campaign already predicting tears (of joy or sorrow, yet to be determined).

In choosing voting machines or any other election-related equipment, the Philadelphia City Commissioners, who are responsible for overseeing voting in Philadelphia, necessarily must balance the desire to have the latest technology with the need to have equipment that has been thoroughly tried and tested. The Horn & Hardart coffee can has proven itself over decades to be a fair and simple means of randomly choosing ballot position and so long as Pennsylvania law requires ballot position to be determined by the casting of lots, the Horn & Hardart tradition appears safe.

That’s why for Philadelphia municipal races, like the closely-watched District Attorney race, this “casting of lots” took place on March 15 and Philly Set Go was there to live-tweet the play-by-play. The candidates selected their ballot position by pulling numbered balls from an old Horn & Hardart coffee can.

Yes, literally.

Candidates usually draw their own numbers, but they are free to send a designee, such as a (hopefully lucky) staffer or even a young child.

But given the correlation between ballot position and electoral success, is it really ideal to have one, fixed ballot position all across the City? Or, like some other jurisdictions, should we consider moving to a system of rotating ballot position, where ballot position is randomized across divisions, or even a touchscreen system where ballot position can be randomized for each voter? While it’s hard to pinpoint any organized constituencies that benefit from the current system, any change would require both state legislation and, at least for Philadelphia, all new voting machines.

In the meantime, candidates will be calling upon their superstition of choice and hoping for top ballot position.

Below are the results of the March 15, 2017 ballot position drawing:

District Attorney

1. Rich Negrin
2. Joe Khan
3. Michael Untermeyer
4. Tariq El Shabazz
5. Larry Krasner
6. Teresa Carr Deni
7. Jack O’Neill

1. Beth Grossman


1. Bobbie Curry
2. Rebecca Rhynhart
3. Alan Butkovitz

1. Mike Tomlinson


Note: Join Philly Set Go + our partners for Philadelphia's only millennial-focused town hall with the Philadelphia District Attorney candidates on April 12th! RSVP HERE.