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Governor’s Emergency Powers Curbed in Pennsylvania

May 19, 2021 by Dan McCue
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.

Voters in Pennsylvania appear to have handed the state’s Republicans a significant victory on Tuesday, approving two constitutional amendments that would give the legislature more power to block emergency declarations by the governor.

Though votes will likely continue to be counted for much of Wednesday, the yes vote was 10 percentage points higher than the no vote on the measures.

The decision by the electorate caps a more than year-long power struggle between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled state legislature over the appropriate response to COVID-19.

Republican efforts to override Wolf’s orders through the courts and through legislation — which required a two-thirds vote — failed in the past year.

But voters appear to agree lawmakers should be able to end an emergency order with a simple majority.

The state’s current COVID-19 emergency order is set to expire on Memorial Day.

The other two amendments on the ballot Tuesday were on track to pass easily, each by a margin of close to 40%.

One would update the state constitution to specifically ban racial and ethnic discrimination. Both state and federal law already prohibit the practice in nearly every legal arena, but the Attorney General’s office described the measure as a fail-safe against any future discriminatory state or federal laws.

The other is a referendum asking voters to allow the state’s 94 paid and volunteer/paid combination fire departments to apply for loans to help with equipment and apparatus purchases.

Results in several local primary races continued to trickle in on Wednesday due to what officials described as scattered issues with the voting process. At least two counties ran out of ballots, while another was forced to count the ballots by hand due to a printing error.

In Philadelphia, a machine used to slice open ballots malfunctioned, and in Luzerne County, which encompasses Wilkes-Barre, Pa., voting machines showed a graphic for the wrong political party.

Despite these scattered incidents, Acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid said things had gone smoothly overall. 

The day’s election, she said, was “indeed successful” and there were “no widespread incidents to report.”

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