Pennsylvania Primary: Nationally watched questions on pandemic, race on ballot

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Voters in Pennsylvania will weigh in on nationally watched questions on Tuesday’s primary ballot, questions stemming from Republican dissatisfaction over shutdowns ordered by Gov. Tom Wolf during the pandemic and worries over whether federal judges appointed by former President Donald Trump will roll back civil rights protections.

Republican lawmakers across the country are rolling back the emergency powers that governors wielded during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Pennsylvania is in the unique position of being the first to take the question to voters.

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Two questions seek to limit a governor’s emergency disaster declarations and put more power in the hands of lawmakers. They ask voters to end a declaration after 21 days and to give lawmakers the sole authority to extend it or end it at any time with a simple majority vote.

Current law allows a governor to issue an emergency declaration for up to 90 days and extend it without limit. The constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote by lawmakers to end the declaration.

Wolf, a Democrat, and his emergency disaster director have called the proposals reckless, political and a threat to a functioning society if it prevents a fast and wide-ranging response to increasingly complicated disasters.

Republicans have accused Wolf of fear-mongering and said that the framers of the constitution never intended for a governor to hold so much power to suspend regulations, order mask-wearing and businesses and schools shut down.

The Legislature did not hold hearings on the measures, and they may end up in court if voters approve them because their effect is in dispute.

Republicans claim the governor cannot order shutdowns without a disaster emergency in effect. Wolf disagrees, saying a governor’s authority during a public health emergency rests on separate public health law and is unaffected by the ballot questions.

A third, unrelated question asks voters to decide whether to add a passage to the constitution outlawing discrimination because of someone’s race or ethnicity. It’s believed to be the first time since last summer’s protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis that voters will decide a racial equity issue on a statewide ballot.

Constitutional law professors say it will have little practical effect because courts already consider such discrimination to violate both the state and federal constitutions.

Sen. Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said he originally sponsored the measure in case federal anti-discrimination case law is reversed by the Republican-majority U.S. Supreme Court or federal judges appointed by Trump.

If it passes, it would become the constitution’s fourth equality provision, added to “all men are born equally free and independent,” a protection from discrimination in exercising civil rights, and a 1971 amendment that ensures gender equality.