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Pennsylvanians Approve Expansion of Emergency Authority

The ballot questions award the state Legislature more power during state-declared emergencies.

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) — While the primary election results may not be finalized for a few days, unofficial results Wednesday morning show that Pennsylvania voters have chosen to alter the state’s constitution to give their Legislature more power in situations where governors declare states of emergency.

Spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic, voters were faced with two ballot questions that asked them to weigh in on whether their governor should unilaterally hold the power to make and extend emergency declarations — both of which passed by a slim margin.

Asking if voters would like Pennsylvania law to allow a simple majority of the state’s General Assembly to end a disaster declaration at any time, the first of the questions had garnered a "yes" from 54% of voters. The second, which asked if voters would like state law to mandate that all disaster declarations automatically expire after three weeks (after which the Legislature would have to confirm any extensions) had also gained approval from 54% of voters.

But the state said prior to the election that more than 800,000 of the state’s voters had requested a mail-in ballot and that the overwhelming majority of all ballots would be counted within a few days after the election.

“Since Pennsylvania's election laws do not currently permit the pre-canvassing of ballots that most other states allow, counties cannot begin mail ballot counting until 7 a.m. on Election Day,” the state explained in a press release.

According to Ballotpedia, the majority of Pennsylvanians have a history of voting "yes" on ballot questions and have approved all 17 questions put on the ballot between 1995 and 2019.

At the heart of the questions on the ballot lies a party dispute over the handling of the Covid-19 crisis — and an attempt by the state’s Republicans to insert the General Assembly as a more powerful player in Pennsylvania’s emergency declarations. 

“If passed, it would alter the balance of power between the governor and legislature,” William Rosenberg, a politics professor at Drexel University, explained of the questions on a call Tuesday. He noted that asking the public whether to change the state’s constitution was a way for the General Assembly to avoid having to gather a “supermajority,” or two-thirds vote, to do so themselves.

Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature has harshly critiqued Democratic Governor Tom Wolf’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, including his shuttering of all non-essential businesses and schools at the start of the outbreak, ordering Pennsylvania citizens to wear masks in public and issuing months-long moratoriums on foreclosures and evictions.

After the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled last summer that the state Legislature couldn’t force Wolf to end his pandemic declaration, the lawmakers pushed to let voters decide. 

Rosenberg noted Tuesday that most Democrats have leaned toward policies that favor collective protection from Covid-19 while Republicans have leaned toward those that uplift personal freedoms, like giving people the choice to wear masks and social distance.

The amendments to the constitution will affect how Pennsylvania officials make decisions about the pandemic going forward — although it is possible they will not have much effect on other events. With Covid-19, the ongoing state of emergency is a somewhat unique situation, according to Rosenberg.

“Most emergency declarations don't really deal with situations that go on for 17 months,” Rosenberg said.

“It’s not like a flood or a hurricane. It's a medical issue,” he added. 

The state has been under emergency status since March 6, 2020, and Pennsylvania’s governor is the only state official with the authority to end a disaster declaration. As is, the General Assembly can only end a governor’s declaration if it achieves a “supermajority” or two-thirds vote — a measure the GOP-controlled Legislature tried and failed at this last year during Covid-19. Wolf currently holds the sole power to extend the declarations, which last 90 days by default, and has done so four times.

Pennsylvania’s split of party power between legislative and executive branches has been going on for several years. A Democratic governor has been in office in Pennsylvania since 2015. Meanwhile, the state’s house has been controlled by Republicans for the last decade and the state’s Senate has been controlled by Republicans since 1994.  

Rosenberg noted Tuesday that all states are still in the driver's seat with deciding how to address the pandemic. 

“The tension that we see playing out in Pennsylvania and other states around the country is what happens when there's not a consistent perspective about what ought to be done among policymakers,” he explained, adding that while Covid-19 cases have been trending downward, hundreds of Americans are still dying from the virus every day.

“We're always going to have individuals who have different points of view,” Rosenberg said about the two parties differing perspectives on navigating the virus.

The two other questions for voters on the ballot passed by a wide margin, including one that asked voters to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to guarantee equal rights for all races and ethnicities. The other, a referendum, asked voters to allow municipal fire and emergency medical services to apply for state loans.

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