In the first political test of voters' attitudes towards pandemic lockdowns, Pennsylvanians voted Tuesday to curtail unilateral executive power over emergency declarations.
By slim margins, voters approved a pair of proposed constitutional amendments that took aim at Gov. Tom Wolf's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which included several broad orders limiting public gatherings and economic activity during the past year. Both amendments will transfer significant power from the executive branch to the state legislature.
The first proposed amendment would allow the state legislature to end a governor's emergency declaration with a simple majority vote—rather than the two-thirds vote currently required. The second would automatically end an emergency declaration after 21 days unless the state legislature votes to extend it. Under current law, an emergency declaration lasts for 90 days and the governor can extend one indefinitely.
With slightly more than 1 million votes counted in both contests as of Wednesday morning, when the Associated Press called the races, both proposed amendments were supported by about 53 percent of voters.
The success of these ballot measures could change how Pennsylvania handles future emergencies, but Tuesday's results are also largely about politics—and could foreshadow similar efforts in other states.
At the local level, Pennsylvania voters rejected other government powers. In Pittsburgh, voters approved a ballot measure to ban no-knock police raids and a second measure forbidding the use of solitary confinement at the Allegheny County Jail. In Philadelphia, reform-minded District Attorney Larry Krasner easily defeated a primary challenge from a candidate backed by the police union.
Critics of Wolf's handling of COVID-19 accused him of running an opaque and arbitrary pandemic regime that forced supposedly "non-essential" businesses to close with no input from the legislature even months after the most acute phase of the emergency had passed. Republicans control Pennsylvania's state legislature, but they lacked the necessary two-thirds majority to do anything substantial about Wolf's emergency declaration during the past year. So they put the amendments on the ballot.
Wolf told the Associated Press this week that the ballot questions "undermine our democracy" because they seek to "take away our ability to respond to emergencies."
While they are undoubtedly the result of a partisan grudge match in Harrisburg, the two ballot questions also represented the first time that voters have been asked to weigh in on state-level lockdowns and the unilateral power many governors exercised (to varying degrees in different places) during the pandemic. As America puts COVID-19 behind us, voters and policymakers necessarily must grapple with difficult questions about the powers that officials should have in an emergency. Even if there was conclusive evidence that broad economic lockdowns were a net positive by some all-encompassing metric, the legitimacy of a given policy is ultimately determined by the voters.
In Pennsylvania, which is about as good of a political microcosm for the country as you'll find, voters remain sharply divided about our pandemic-era politics. But skeptics of executive power have scored the first victory in what figures to be a long fight.