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Meet the data scientist who took on corrupt elections in Philly

In 2011, Stephanie Singer broke fundraising records to unseat a 36-year incumbent and help clean up Philadelphia’s elections. Now, she’s using technology to take that mission nationwide.

A technologist, “amateur hacker,” and Stanford computer science alum with a mathematics Ph.D., Stephanie Singer entered politics because she saw a problem in her city that she was in a unique position to help solve. In 2011, one of the three City Commissioner seats on Philadelphia’s board of elections was occupied by Marge Tartaglione, a Democrat who in her 36-year tenure had racked up startling allegations of corruption—including the deployment of broken voting machines, absentee ballot fraud, and conflict of interest (for good measure).

Though this was her first time campaigning for public office, Singer’s sense of purpose provided a firm foundation for her platform. “I was running because I had a mission of free, fair elections and an informed, engaged electorate and I kept bumping up against this office,” she says. “It became clear that the best way to move my mission forward was to actually be in that office. So, that really set up the campaign rhetorically and emotionally.” 

Being a challenger candidate came with challenges of its own, and the first was getting access to the technology she needed to run. As a Democrat in a primary against the incumbent, she wouldn’t have had access to the party’s preferred digital tools on principle. On top of that, local party leadership hadn’t opted to gain access to those tools for even well-established candidates. For Singer, the choice to use NationBuilder was easy. “I used [it] out of the gate because it fit with my own vision of technology for democracy... I was so relieved when NationBuilder came along because it was clearly a professional product doing what I had envisioned. It was just a great, great fit.” 

With those tools in place her next move was, quite simply, to “raise a ton of money.” A scientific and poll-based approach allowed Singer and team to identify the “super-voters” likely to show up for this race that “nobody paid attention to,” as well as test which messages would be most effective to garner votes. According to Singer, “that made the fundraising much more direct, because I could say, ‘look, $100 lets me send 200 postcards to people we know will vote with a message we know will work.’” As one might expect, the scientific community was especially receptive to this data-driven approach and turned out to be a “sweet spot” for the campaign’s fundraising efforts. While no one campaigning for this position in past cycles had appeared to raise or spend more than $30,000 (on the books, at least), Singer’s campaign managed to raise $175,000.

Ultimately, Singer handily won both the Primary and General elections and served a formative term as City Commissioner. While in office, she pushed for transparency and helped achieve some meaningful “firsts,” including publishing the first voter guide in both English and Spanish, modernizing the office’s website, and fighting to make meeting transcripts publicly available for greater accountability among Commissioners. Though the progress was hard-won and political infighting thwarted her efforts to run for reelection, she accomplished much of what she’d set out to do and “caused trouble” for the corrupt party machine.

Now, Singer is a Principled Project Lead at Free & Fair, a Portland-based election technology company that aims to improve the integrity of US elections across the map. In her words, “It’s the secure, reliable, transparent election technology that America deserves, and it’s at a price that counties can afford to pay. It’s a very exciting, new company breaking into the market.”

In her spare time, Stephanie Singer acts as a mentor for those pursuing missions related to the workings of democracy, and is available via email for related inquiries.


Image credits, left to right: Demet Senturk; Kimberly Palmer/WHYYApril Saul/
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