Pennsylvania voters on Tuesday approved two amendments to the Commonwealth’s constitution restricting the governor’s power to declare and then extend states of emergency. Amendment 1 allows the General Assembly to terminate an emergency by a majority vote of both houses. Currently, ending such declarations requires a two-thirds vote and the governor’s agreement. Amendment 2 limits emergencies to 21 days instead of the current 90, and mandates they can only be extended by the Assembly.
At present, that authority belongs solely to the governor.
The amendments were, in the estimation of many observers, a retaliatory measure by Republicans in Harrisburg against Gov. Tom Wolf’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Wolf declared a state of emergency for COVID in March 2020, which he has extended four times and is now in its fifteenth month. The Assembly voted to terminate the emergency, but Wolf vetoed the effort.
Frustrated Republicans decided to bypass him and take the matter straight to Pennsylvania’s voters by proposing new limits on the governor’s powers. The governor has no role in this process and therefore couldn’t veto the initiatives. So important were these amendments to Republicans that they shelved one to have justices on the state Supreme Court elected by district instead of statewide, a longstanding priority. Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of State rewrote the ballot language for the amendments in Wolf’s favor, to no avail.
The amendments’ passage should perhaps not be surprising; Pennsylvanians have rejected only two constitutional amendments since the 1960s, and none since the 1990s. Both were ratified with vote shares of 53 percent and margins of 130,000 votes.
What might be unexpected is how well the amendments did in southeastern Pennsylvania just a few months after the region propelled Joe Biden to victory in the state. The “Yes” vote, which can be treated as a rough gauge of Republican strength, improved on Donald Trump’s result in several of the suburban Delaware Valley counties. The “No” vote, on the other hand, underperformed Joe Biden. Taken as a proxy for support of Wolf specifically and their party generally, this could be a worrisome sign for Democrats as they head into the 2022 midterm elections.
Joe Biden clobbered Donald Trump 58-41 percent in the former Republican stronghold of Chester County. Amendments 1 and 2 also lost, but not by as much; both fell 46-54 percent. That’s a 9-point shift from November.
In Delaware County, Biden’s margin over Trump was even more massive, 63-36 percent. Both amendments fared much better, losing by just 10 and 12 percent, respectively.
Biden won Montgomery County by a similar margin to Delco. The swing here wasn’t as dramatic, but it wasn’t negligible, either. The amendments got around 40 percent of the vote, for an improvement over Trump’s performance of 7 points.
Biden’s worst performance in suburban Philadelphia came in Bucks County, where he won by not quite 4.5 percent. The “Yes” vote shaved that margin down to two points, as both amendments lost 49 to 51 percent.
The highest-profile elective race in the state was the Democratic primary for Philadelphia District Attorney. Larry Krasner, the controversial progressive incumbent, comfortably dispatched his challenger, Carlos Vega, 65-35 percent. Vega outperformed both ballot questions, with Amendment 1 getting 33 percent of the vote, while Amendment 2 couldn’t quite crack 30 percent.
Yet both exceeded Trump, who got just 18 percent of the vote against Biden.
If the amendments were, in the words of Spotlight PA’s Sarah Anne Hughes, “a referendum on the Wolf administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic,” then their passage was a resounding repudiation of Wolf. For Republicans, it was a triumph, and several were quick to celebrate their success. The Pittsburgh-based GOP consultant Mark Davin Harris asserted the approval was a “Big defeat for Governor Wolf” and a “Big GOP win.”
The Pennsylvania GOP crowed that “voters took the crown off Tom Wolf’s head.”
Others couldn’t resist looking ahead. Republican National Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted that the rejection of Wolf’s “overreach” was a harbinger “of accountability coming in 2022” and applauded PA Republican voters “for keeping our seats RED!” Harris, also eying next year, posited that if Republicans can nominate good candidates (always “a big if” with the GOP), “they should be the slight favorites to win after 8 years of a Dem Governor and Dem in WH.”
Is that what Tuesday’s results indicate? Perhaps. The passage of the amendments, as well the overperformance of the “Yes” vote compared to Trump’s vote share in the suburbs, is a hopeful sign for the Republican Party.
But results in Tuesday’s special elections were more equivocal. One additional encouraging indicator: Statewide turnout was upwards of 2 million, a strong number for what is usually a sleepy off-year primary with few high profile races. According to a preliminary estimate, Republican voters cast more ballots than Democrats, which undoubtedly helped the emergency powers amendments triumph.
Maintaining this enthusiasm for 16 months will be no mean feat. But if Republicans can recapture it when Pennsylvanians elect successors for Wolf and retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, as well as the state’s delegation to the US House, 2022 may be a good year for them indeed.
And Republican strategist Charlie Gerow told Delaware Valley Journal he believes the impact of Tuesday’s vote will be felt beyond the Keystone State’s borders.
“The victory of two constitutional amendments in Pennsylvania limiting the governor’s emergency powers is a strong message to the rest of the country. Voters here clearly signaled that they want checks and balances. They want their voice to be heard through their elected representatives in the legislature. It’s a message that should be heeded by all.”