In elections, winning or losing may come down to luck of the draw

Ballot positions were chosen yesterday by picking bingo balls from an old Horn & Hardart coffee can.
Ballot positions were chosen yesterday by picking bingo balls from an old Horn & Hardart coffee can.
Posted: March 17, 2011

Picture a circus troupe holding a lottery in a court of law.

Now you know what it looks like when ballot positions are chosen for candidates seeking elected office in Philadelphia.

Candidates gathered in a City Hall courtroom yesterday to learn the order in which their names will appear on the ballot in the May 17 primary election.

Positions were chosen using bingo balls rattling around in an old Horn & Hardart coffee can.

It may all seem a bit hokey, but the outcome is critical in crowded races in which a name at the top of the list often draws more votes than a name at the bottom.

Consider the lone seat open this year on Traffic Court. Of the 15 Democrats in the race, Christine Solomon won the critical first-ballot position. And she didn't even show up. The lone Republican, Lewis Harris Jr., took the first spot by default.

In a process steeped in tradition - the old coffee can, for instance - some candidates who draw poorly can be expected to withdraw from their races.

A good draw is also crucial in City Council at-large races. There are 20 Democrats and 10 Republicans seeking those seven seats. Candidates on each side need to be among the top-five primary voter-getters to advance to the Nov. 8 general election.

The luck was with Councilman Bill Greenlee on the Democratic side as he drew the first position. Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who faced a primary-night scare in 2007 after drawing 17th that year, pulled a much more comfortable fifth spot this year.

The three other Democratic incumbents were not so lucky. Bill Green drew 11th; Jim Kenney, 15th; and W. Wilson Goode Jr., 20th.

Councilman Frank Rizzo, the only at-large Republican running for re-election, drew seventh.

A trio of Common Pleas judges are overseeing election matters this year because the three city commissioners, who usually do that work, are up for re-election.

Tim Dowling, the commissioners' campaign-finance and document specialist, ran the show. With each race, he invited candidates to "inspect the balls" before they were drawn from the can.

Yesterday's event was frequently punctuated by shouts of glee after a good draw, despite the pleas of President Judge Pam Dembe to maintain decorum.

Mayor Nutter and his primary challenger, T. Milton Street, a former state legislator who was released from federal prison last year, did not attend the drawing.

Street won the first spot with Nutter taking second, a result that most in the packed courtroom found amusing. A brief giggle turned into scattered laughter, which grew into a wave of mirth that washed over the room full of politicians and their associates.

Street showed up later and broke out in a smile when he heard about the laughter.

Nutter later said that he was not worried about ballot position.

"I do have the full confidence that voters will be able to find my name," Nutter said.

Warren Bloom set the standard for celebration when he drew the first position in the Democratic race for city commissioner and danced out of the courtroom, saying in a loud and sing-song voice: "Hallelujah, thank you, Jesus! Do the right thing and vote for Bloom in the spring."

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