Stories about Pennsylvania

Ballot measures proposed in response to coronavirus and emergency powers

The coronavirus pandemic has shaped the political landscape of the United States, including the powers of governors and state legislatures. Changes have been proposed in response to the pandemic or pandemic-related regulations and restrictions. Some of these changes, such as state constitutional amendments, require ballot measures for ratification. Others are citizen-initiated proposals, meaning campaigns collect signatures to put proposals on the ballot for voters to decide.

As of March 12, three constitutional amendments related to coronavirus events and conflicts have been certified for future ballots in two states—Pennsylvania and Utah. Voters in Pennsylvania will decide the ballot measures on May 18, 2021. Both of the ballot measures resulted from conflicts between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled General Assembly over the governor’s emergency powers and the legislature’s role in emergency orders. One proposal would limit the governor’s emergency declaration to 21 days unless the legislature votes to extend the order. The other amendment would allow the legislature to pass a resolution, which the governor cannot veto, to terminate the governor’s emergency declaration.

In Utah, voters will decide a constitutional amendment on appropriations limits at the general election in 2022. The ballot measure, which received bipartisan support in the Utah State Legislature, would increase the size of appropriations permitted during an emergency and exempt emergency federal funding from the appropriations limit. 

There are also proposed constitutional amendments and ballot initiatives that could make the ballot in at least 5 additional states. In Arizona, the Senate passed an amendment to limit the governor’s emergency declarations to 30 days unless the legislature votes to extend them. The Arizona House voted to refer a ballot measure that would allow the legislature to modify or terminate the governor’s emergency order. Other citizen-initiated measures related to the governor’s emergency powers have been filed in California, Maine, and Michigan.

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John Blake resigns from Pennsylvania state Senate 

Pennsylvania state Sen. John Blake (D) resigned on March 8 to take a position on U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright’s (D) staff. Cartwright represents Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District in Congress. Blake represented District 22 in the state Senate, which includes Lackawanna County and parts of Luzerne and Monroe Counties. 

“It has been a very difficult and emotional decision for me,” Sen. Blake said at a news conference. “I have served the 22nd District for more than a decade. I’ve given ten years of my life to the office and the people of the district, and I have been privileged and honored to serve.” 

Blake first took office as a state senator representing District 22 in 2011. He was re-elected in 2014, defeating Republican challenger Joe Albert. He most recently won re-election in 2018, defeating Republican Frank Scavo III, 61% to 39%. 

A special election will be held to fill Blake’s seat. When there is a vacancy in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, the presiding officer of the chamber where the vacancy occurred must call for an election. The winner of the special election will serve out the remainder of Blake’s term, which expires on November 30, 2022. 

The Pennsylvania state Senate is the upper chamber of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. After Blake’s resignation, the current partisan breakdown of the Pennsylvania state Senate is 27 Republicans, 20 Democrats, one independent, and two vacancies.

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Candidate field for Pittsburgh mayoral race takes shape

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto faces three challengers in the Democratic primary on May 18, 2021, according to the unofficial list published by Allegheny County on March 9. No Republican candidates were listed. Peduto’s challengers include current state Rep. Edward Gainey, Tony Moreno, and Michael Thompson. 

The winner of the Democratic primary will advance to the general election on Nov. 2. Independent candidates have until Aug. 2 to file for the seat. Unless an independent candidate files, the May 18 Democratic primary winner will be unopposed in the general election.

The city of Pittsburgh utilizes a strong mayor and city council system. In this form of municipal government, the city council serves as the city’s primary legislative body while the mayor serves as the city’s chief executive.

Ballotpedia is covering 43 mayoral elections in 2021. Between 2014 and 2020, 68.2% of incumbent mayors sought re-election; of these, 17.6% were defeated in their bids for re-election.

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Pennsylvania General Assembly refers constitutional changes to governor’s emergency powers to May primary ballot

Voters in Pennsylvania will decide at least three constitutional amendments on May 18, 2021, including two ballot measures to alter the governor’s emergency powers. One ballot measure would limit an emergency declaration by the governor to 21 days unless the legislature passes a resolution to extend the order. Another proposal would allow the legislature to pass a resolution—without the governor’s signature—to extend or terminate an emergency declaration by the governor.

The constitutional amendments were proposed by legislative Republicans in response to Gov. Tom Wolf’s (D) emergency orders related to the coronavirus pandemic. On March 6, 2020, Gov. Wolf signed an emergency disaster declaration following presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania.

In June 2020, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a concurrent resolution to terminate the governor’s coronavirus emergency declaration. Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Republicans, said that the resolution did not need the governor’s signature. “This will not go to Wolf. The declaration is over, and it will be published in the Pennsylvania bulletin,” said Straub. Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for Gov. Wolf, said, “The disaster proclamation has not been terminated by the House or Senate’s actions. Only the governor can terminate the disaster emergency.”

On July 1, 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the governor could veto the concurrent resolution. According to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the state constitution requires all concurrent resolutions to be presented to the governor for approval or veto except for resolutions on legislative adjournment, internal affairs of the legislature, and constitutional amendment ballot measures. On July 14, Gov. Wolf vetoed the resolution. The state House voted on the governor’s veto on Sept. 2, 2020, but the vote fell short of the two-thirds requirement to overturn a veto.

State Rep. Russ Diamond (R-102) proposed the constitutional changes. He said, “If the General Assembly — a co-equal branch of government — does not believe that the governor is acting properly, then the General Assembly should have a right to override that governor’s disaster emergency order.”

Gov. Wolf responded, “[The amendment] would hinder our ability to respond quickly, comprehensively and effectively to a disaster emergency by requiring any declaration to be affirmed by concurrent resolution of the legislature every three weeks. This would force partisan politics into the commonwealth’s disaster response efforts and could slow down or halt emergency response when aid is most needed.”

The third constitutional amendment certified for the May 18 ballot would add language to the state constitution that prohibits the denial or abridgment of rights on account of an individual’s race or ethnicity. It was included in the same bill as the two constitutional amendments addressing the governor’s emergency powers. It wasn’t originally part of the bill. Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-7) proposed adding the amendment to the bill, and the full Senate voted unanimously to include it. 

Between 1995 and 2020, the state legislature referred 10 constitutional amendments to the ballot. All 10 of the constitutional amendments were approved. Pennsylvania voters last rejected a constitutional amendment in 1981.

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Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth to resign after error in constitutional amendment process

Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar (D) is expected to resign on February 5, 2021, after her office failed to advertise a constitutional amendment as the state constitution requires. Voters could have decided the constitutional amendment at the election on May 18, 2021, but the two-session process will need to restart. The earliest the amendment could be referred to the ballot is now May 16, 2023. 

The constitutional amendment would have created a two-year period in which persons can file civil suits arising from childhood sexual abuse that would otherwise be considered outside the statute of limitations. A 2018 grand jury report that investigated child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church recommended the two-year litigation window.

A constitutional amendment must be approved at two successive sessions of the Pennsylvania Legislature. During the 2019-2020 legislative session, both legislative chambers approved the amendment. It was reintroduced during the 2021-2022 session, and the state House re-approved it on January 27. 

The Pennsylvania Constitution (Section 1 of Article XI) required Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar (D) to publish the constitutional amendment in at least two newspapers in each of the state’s 67 counties during each of the three months before the general election following approval in the first legislative session (November 3, 2020). On February 1, 2021, the Pennsylvania Department of State announced that officials did not advertise the constitutional amendment as required. The department’s press released said, “While the department will take every step possible to expedite efforts to move this initiative forward, the failure to advertise the proposed constitutional amendment means the process to amend the constitution must now start from the beginning.” 

Gov. Tom Wolf (D), in announcing Boockvar’s resignation, said, “The delay caused by this human error will be heartbreaking for thousands of survivors of childhood sexual assault, advocates, and legislators, and I join the Department of State in apologizing to you. I share your anger and frustration that this happened, and I stand with you in your fight for justice.” State Rep. Jim Gregory (R-80), one of the amendment’s legislative cosponsors in 2019, responded, “The gravity of this ‘error’ is of the magnitude that the secretary’s resignation will not be enough for the victims. I do not want to believe that this is willful misconduct on the part of someone, but I will need to be shown that is not the case.”

Pennsylvania is not the only state to miss a constitutionally required advertisement period for a constitutional amendment in recent years. In 2019, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate (R) said that his office failed to report two constitutional amendments that the 86th Iowa General Assembly (2017-2018) approved in 2018. This meant those amendments couldn’t go on the 2020 ballot and the process had to start over. One of those amendments, a measure to add a right to firearms to the state constitution, was certified for the 2022 ballot on January 28.

Like the Pennsylvania Constitution, the Iowa Constitution required notifications of the constitutional amendments to be published at least three months before the general election following approval in the first legislative session. Unlike Pennsylvania, the Iowa Constitution doesn’t specify who needs to publish the amendment. Rather, it is set in statute. In response to the error, the Iowa Legislature passed a bill to make the state legislature, rather than the secretary of state, responsible for publishing proposed constitutional amendments passed in one legislative session.

Since the Pennsylvania Constitution specifically requires the secretary of the commonwealth to publish amendments, a constitutional amendment would be needed to pursue a similar policy change as Iowa.

Thirty-six state constitutions have a publication requirement for proposed constitutional amendments. Most require public notice prior to the election at which voters are to decide a constitutional amendment.

In six states (out of 13) with a two-session process for legislatively referred constitutional amendments, there are constitutionally mandated publication requirements in between approval in the first legislative session and the second legislative session. Those states are Iowa, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

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Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court rules that 2019 Marsy’s Law ballot measure violated state constitution

Judge gavel on desk

On January 7, 2021, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled that a ballot measure for Marsy’s Law, a type of crime victims’ rights amendment, violated the Pennsylvania Constitution. Pennsylvanians voted 74% to 26% in favor of Marsy’s Law at the election on November 5, 2019. Results were never certified, however, according to a court order.

The 3-2 appellate court decision stated that the proposal violated the separate-vote requirement for constitutional amendments. According to the Pennsylvania Constitution, “When two or more amendments shall be submitted they shall be voted upon separately.” Judge Ellen Ceisler (D) wrote the majority’s opinion, which ruled that Marsy’s Law would impact separate rights and provisions of the state constitution.

Judge Patricia McCullough (R), who agreed with the majority’s decision but wrote a separate opinion, stated that the measure contained “laudable and salutary provisions” but “simply embraces too many disparate matters to effectively convey its import to voters within the 75 words mandated by statute.”

Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt (R) dissented, stating that Marsy’s Law created constitutional rights for crime victims without changing existing provisions of the state constitution. Judge Leavitt wrote, “The judgment the court enters today deprives the people of this power on the strength of no more than speculation.”

Jennifer Riley, director of the organization Marsy’s Law for Pennsylvania, responded to the Commonwealth Court’s decision, saying, “We are prepared to continue advocating for victims and to bring an appeal to the Supreme Court to ensure that the votes of Pennsylvanians are counted and that the voices of the victims are protected.”

In Pennsylvania, constitutional amendments need to be passed by the state Legislature during two successive legislative sessions. In 2018, both chambers unanimously passed the amendment. In 2019, the state Senate unanimously passed the amendment, and 190 of 202 state representatives voted for it. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) supported the ballot measure, as did the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and U.S. Reps. Fred Keller (R) and Scott Perry (R).

Opponents included the ACLU of Pennsylvania, League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Marsy’s Law for Pennsylvania raised $6.65 million from the Marsy’s Law for All Foundation to campaign for the measure.

Marsy’s Law ballot measures faced similar lawsuits in state courts in Kentucky and Montana. The amendment was struck down in Montana for violating the state’s separate-vote requirement on constitutional amendments. In Kentucky, after it was struck down for reasons related to ballot language, the state Legislature placed it on the ballot again in 2020. The 2020 version, which was approved, included the full text of the measure on the ballot.

As of January 2021, 12 states had Marsy’s Law amendments. Voters in two additional states—Pennsylvania and Montana—voted in favor of Marsy’s Law amendments, but they were overturned or blocked. Henry Nicholas, the co-founder of Broadcom Corp., started campaigning for Marsy’s Law to increase the rights and privileges of victims in state constitutions. Marsy’s Law is named after Nicholas’ sister, Marsy Nicholas, who was murdered in 1983.

Additional reading:

Pennsylvania voters could decide as many as eight constitutional amendments in 2021 or 2022

In Pennsylvania, the average number of statewide ballot measures for a single year is less than 1. In 2021 or 2022, Pennsylvanians could vote on upwards of eight ballot measures that address electoral and voting policies, legal language and actions, and the governor’s emergency powers.

For an amendment to appear on a statewide ballot the legislature needs to approve it during two legislative sessions, with the final vote taking place at least three months before the election. Amendments can appear on the ballot at the spring primary election or the general election.

During the 2019-2020 legislative session, the state legislature passed eight constitutional amendments. Legislators are required to pass the amendments again during the 2021-2022 legislative session before electors can vote on ratification. An amendment must receive a simple majority vote in each legislative chamber. If partisan control of a legislative chamber changes, the two-session requirement can decrease the likelihood of any amendments that were approved along party lines from receiving a final, second-session vote. Republicans controlled both chambers of the state legislature during the 2019-2020 legislative session. Republicans kept control of the legislature following the election on November 3, 2020. The governor’s signature is not part of the process of placing constitutional amendments on the ballot.

Two of the constitutional amendments passed with nearly unanimous support from Democratic and Republican legislators (one Republican voted against the proposals). 

  • Eliminate Separate Ballot Requirement for Judicial Retention Elections Amendment: The ballot measure would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to eliminate the requirement that judicial retention elections appear on a separate ballot (or in a separate column on voting machines) from other elections.
  • No-Excuse Absentee Voting Amendment: The ballot measure would amend constitutional language to state that no election law can require voters to physically appear at a polling place on election day. It would also remove the list of excuses related to receiving an absentee ballot.

A third amendment had bipartisan support in the legislature but was rejected by five Democrats and 16 Republicans. 

  • Childhood Sexual Abuse Retroactive Lawsuits for Two-Year Period Amendment: The ballot measure would create a two-year period in which persons can file civil suits arising from childhood sexual abuse that would otherwise be considered outside the statute of limitations.

A fourth amendment had the support of most Republicans (two dissents) and about two-fifths of Democrats.

  • Lieutenant Governor Selection Amendment: In Pennsylvania, a political party’s candidates for governor and lieutenant governor are elected on a joint ticket at the general election. As of 2020, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run in separate primaries for their party’s nomination and then form a joint ticket. The ballot measure would allow a political party’s candidate for governor to choose their own candidate for lieutenant governor. The ballot measure would provide that political parties may approve or reject their gubernatorial candidate’s pick for lieutenant governor.

The remaining four constitutional amendments were passed as a package and mostly along party lines. All Republicans supported the legislation, while 9 percent of legislative Democrats supported the package.

  • Equal Rights Regardless of Race or Ethnicity Amendment: The ballot measure would add the following section to the Pennsylvania Constitution’s Declaration of Rights: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania because of the race or ethnicity of the individual.”
  • Districts for State Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth Court Elections Amendment: The ballot measure would change how voters elect justices and judges of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the Pennsylvania Superior Court, and the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. As of 2020, justices and judges of these courts are elected statewide. The ballot measure would provide for justices and judges to be elected from representative districts, which the Pennsylvania General Assembly would be responsible for establishing
  • Governor’s Emergency Declaration Amendment: The ballot measure would define the governor’s power to use executive orders to declare emergencies, allow the state legislature to pass laws related to how emergencies must be managed, and limit a governor-issued emergency declaration to 21 days unless extended by a vote of the legislature.
  • Legislative Resolution to Extend or Terminate Emergency Declaration Amendment: The ballot measure would allow the Pennsylvania General Assembly to pass a resolution extending or terminating an emergency declaration issued by the governor.

Since 1995, a total of 17 measures appeared on statewide ballots in Pennsylvania, and voters approved all of them. 

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Conor Lamb wins re-election to Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District

Incumbent Conor Lamb (D) defeated challenger Sean Parnell (R) in Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District.

Lamb was first elected in a March 2018 special election for the remainder of Tim Murphy’s (R) term in what was then the 18th Congressional District. Lamb defeated Rick Saccone (R) 49.9% to 49.5% to flip the seat. Following court-ordered redistricting later that year, Lamb won election to the new 17th District 56.3% to 43.7% over Keith Rothfus (R). Preliminary returns indicate that Parnell won by a more narrow 51.1% to 48.9% margin this year.

In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump (R) defeated Hillary Clinton (D) 49% to 47% in the district, making it one of 30 districts Democrats were defending this year that President Trump carried in 2016.