From the lowest level of government to the highest, Philadelphia is divided into the following political subdivisions:
City Council districts
State Representative districts
State Senate districts
Congressional Representative districts
Wards and Ward Divisions
Wards are the basic unit of Philadelphia’s political parties. When people talk about the “party machine,” this is it. The wards have a long history with roots in early colonialism, and were originally for police districts. The current wards were determined by a 1965 promulgation from something called the Court of Quarter Sessions, an antiquated court from the county level that also dates back to colonial times. City Council districts are defined by the wards, so by now they are treated as a given in Philadelphia politics.
Philadelphia is divided into 66 wards, and each ward is composed of 10-50 ward divisions. Every four years, each party has elections for ward committee members at the ward division level, who are the so-called “foot soldiers of the parties.” Each ward division elects two committee members from each party. Committee members have few formal responsibilities, and are generally supposed to get out the vote and distribute endorsements. Their greatest responsibility is to elect the ward leader shortly after their own elections. Each ward gets one ward leader from each party, except for three wards that are larger, and they get two ward leaders from each party. So, each party should have 70 ward leaders and more than 3,000 committee members.
Why does all of this stuff matter? Good question. Ward leaders have a large amount of power in Philadelphia politics. First, they are responsible for choosing endorsements for all elections. Since Philadelphia elections typically have many candidates who voters are unaware of, these endorsements have historically determined the winners. Second, ward leaders get to dole out what is called “street cash,” which is a couple hundred dollars from the party each election for managing typical election duties. Ward leaders also get to vote on who the party’s candidate will be in special elections, which happen when a sitting representative resigns, has a medical issue, or is removed from office. Since this is so common in Philadelphia, and because this is a one-party town, this means that ward leaders effectively get to pick the next representative. Finally, ward leaders vote for the leader of all of the wards, who serves as the head of the party in Philadelphia. For the Democrats, this is Bob Brady, former Congress person.
Note that ward leaders can and do serve in other elected roles. Most elected officials from Philadelphia are also ward leaders.
If you want to change the party and have the biggest impact locally, then start with the wards! It only takes a couple dozen votes to win an election as a committee person. The committee people and ward leaders shape the party locally, so this should be the first step for a grassroots movement.
Below is a map of the wards and their divisions. The ward divisions are delineated within each ward, but unfortunately there are too many to highlight more details within them. Please see phillywardleaders.com, a project managed by Committee of Seventy, for more information on the wards and their elected officials.
CITY COUNCIL DISTRICTS
City Council is the legislative body of the City. They write and vote on new laws that then make it into the Philadelphia Code, assuming the mayor doesn’t veto the law. City Council also appoints several committee or department members. Council’s most significant role is voting on the annual budget.
Philadelphia’s City Council has 10 district members and seven at-large members. The at-large members are elected citywide. Each voter gets to choose up to five candidates, and the seven with the most votes win. Each party can only submit up to five at-large candidates, so typically the Democrats have five at-large members, and the Republicans have two. The district members are directly elected by popular vote and can be from any party. Only voters within their respective districts can vote for a district member. The districts are mapped below.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE DISTRICTS
The Pennsylvania legislature is the General Assembly, which mirrors the structure of Congress in many ways. It is a bicameral legislature, with elected representatives and senators. All members of the General Assembly write and vote on legislation, and the governor has a chance to veto any legislation. Revenue bills must originate in the House of Representatives, but the Senate must also vote on the revenue bills. Like City Council, probably the largest responsibility of the General Assembly is to vote on the annual state budget. The General Assembly also has a few other roles, such as selecting certain committee members or department members. Elections are every two years for Representatives.
There are 203 State Representatives, with 26 of them covering at least some portion of Philadelphia. Note that because the state legislature is so heavily gerrymandered, some of these districts have just a tiny slice of Philadelphia, so it is a bit odd to consider them our representatives. Still, some Philadelphia voters get to choose them, so they are included in the map.
STATE SENATE DISTRICTS
The Pennsylvania Senate is part of the General Assembly. Unlike the Senate at the federal level, Pennsylvania’s senate has districts. There is not a whole lot of difference between the Senate and the House of Representatives, except that there are only 50 senators and elections are every four years. Philadelphia has seven senators, and, like the House of Representatives, some of these districts are so heavily gerrymandered that they only represent a very small portion of the city. Below is a map of Philadelphia’s State Senate districts.
CONGRESSIONAL REPRESENTATIVE DISTRICTS
Congress is the legislature at the federal level. It is a bicameral body, consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Senate is elected statewide every six years, while the House of Representatives are elected by popular vote from districts every two years. There are 435 members of the House of Representatives nationwide, 18 in Pennsylvania, and three who represent at least some part of Philadelphia.
Congress writes and votes on legislation, and the president can veto any legislation. Similar to other legislatures, their largest responsibility is to vote on the budget every year. They also have various other responsibilities, such as appointing certain committee or department members, and the Senate confirms certain presidential appointments and carries out specialized hearings. All revenue bills must originate in the House, but the Senate must also vote on them.
It is very important to note that Pennsylvania suffers from a serious gerrymandering problem. It was so bad that the State Supreme Court ruled the post-2010 census districts as unconstitutional, and ordered a committee to create temporary districts. The map below shows these temporary districts by default, but you can toggle these and the post-2010 census districts to get an idea of how they changed. By default, the same redistricting process will happen again after 2020, so there is a large reform movement growing. But, for now these are our districts.
Current Representation and Political Registration
Unlike the maps above, this one shows data in each district. The base map that shows by default is every county in Pennsylvania, color coded to voter registration data as of 2019. Red counties have at least 1.2 registered Republicans for every registered Democrat, blue counties have less than 0.8 registered Republicans for every Democrat, and purple is everything in the middle. In short, red are strong Republican counties, blue are strong Democrat counties, and purple are counties that are too close to call. By hovering over the layers button on the left of the map (the one that looks like a cylinder), you can toggle different layers by pressing the button that looks like an eye. Each layer shows the current representation of each district for Congress, State Representatives, and State Senate. Red is Republican, blue is Democrat, and gray is vacant. The maps are slightly transparent so you can compare them to the layout of registered voters. In this way, you can see the impact of gerrymandering.