Candidate for Philadelphia City Commissioner Kahlil Williams left Penn in 2011 and began working with political centers and organizations around the nation. Over a decade later, he is using what he learned at Penn to run in hopes of improving Philadelphia's election process.
“Some of the things I learned about teaching students at Penn are really relevant to thinking about how to successfully train poll workers and educate people about the political process,” Williams said.
Philadelphia's three city commissioners are tasked with administering voter registration and conducting elections for the county. Williams, who launched his campaign six weeks ago, was enrolled in Penn’s Political Science Ph.D. program from 2001 to 2011, concentrating in American Politics. After debating whether he should pursue academia or law, he left the Ph.D. program to become a lawyer.
What helped qualify Williams for the position, he said, was his tenure as a Penn student.
“The first election law class I ever took was while I was at Penn, and I learned a lot about equal protection, the constitution, and everything from ballot access rules to campaign finance rules, which will continue to be relevant at the City Commissioner’s office," he said.
Political Science professor Rogers Smith, the co-advisor for Williams’ doctoral thesis, said Williams was "very outgoing and engaging," adding that he was “torn between academics and politics, and getting out and actually doing things in the world.”
While still enrolled at Penn, Williams left the University for a fellowship in Washington D.C. in 2005 with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. He then moved to New York City to work for the Brennan Center for Justice as a policy analyst. Three years later, Williams enrolled in Columbia Law School, and officially left Penn in 2011 before completing his Ph.D.
In 2016, Williams ran New York’s Election Protection program, a 400-person legal volunteer group, through the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“Overseeing that was really really exciting, and gave me a lot of the experience relevant to [running for City Commissioner],” Williams said.
The Philadelphia city commissioner position has recently faced backlash after Commissioner Anthony Clark was reported to have had a spotty attendance record, even during the 2018 midterm elections. Petitions have also been launched to entirely abolish the position, which many believe to be outdated.
Williams said he does not think the position will be abolished anytime soon. “We really need people in the office that are passionate about protecting voting rights and are really committed to elections in Philadelphia being run properly," he said.
Williams said he is determined to improve election reform and promote further change at the state level.
“For instance, the commissioners can be leaders and can be vocal on early voting and no fault absentee voting,” he said. “They can really put pressure on the legislature and other leaders to really advance the ball on these issues.”
If elected on May 21, Williams said he hopes to encourage innovation to increase voter turnout and participation, such as implementing remote voting and voting by phone.
“We have a population of first responders in Philadelphia that are really hamstrung by absentee ballot rules in the state," he said. "We should be thinking really hard about how to get relief for those folks in innovative ways."
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