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The PA Constitution as a Political Tool

Anthony Williams | Kim Ward

“This is about raw, partisan, political power.”

Senate Democratic whip Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) laid it out in no uncertain terms. “We’re crossing a historical marker,” he told LNP | Lancaster Online.

He’s talking about the Pennsylvania Republican-controlled legislature and its new found toy – passing constitutional amendments that cannot be vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Unlike many western states, such as California, Colorado and Oregon, Pennsylvania does not have a citizen referendum process that lets voters place legislation on the ballot without the Legislature or governor involved.

The Keystone State’s procedure requires a proposed amendment to be passed in two successive sessions of the Legislature before it can be placed on the ballot for voters to reject or approve.

In the spring 2021 election, there were four constitutional amendments on the primary ballot, including two that were directed at Wolf – a resolution terminating or extending a disaster emergency declaration need not be presented to the governor for his signature; and disaster declarations would be limited to no more than 21 days, allowing time for the General Assembly to be called into session and meet possible emergency needs. Both passed with just over 1.16 out of 2.25 million votes or between 51-52 percent.

Pennsylvania has 8.7 million registered voters. That’s less than 30 percent of the people making a decision on amending the state’s Constitution.

Williams’ warning comes as the General Assembly is one step away from placing on the ballot a resolution stating there is no constitutional right to abortion and no requirement for taxpayers to pay for one. Should the Legislature pass the same amendment that it did early in the month in next year’s session, the question could be put to voters as early as the 2023 spring primary.

The Philadelphia senator sees the use of end-around joint resolutions to change the constitution as a trend. In the current two-year session, 41 resolutions have been introduced to change the Pennsylvania Constitution — 38 by Republicans and three by Democrats.

There are legitimate reasons to change the constitution to enact policy, Williams acknowledged. But cutting the governor and the courts out of a final decision disrupts a process that has worked for decades.

Republicans see it differently.

Republicans say using this process lets voters decide and evens the scales if the governor wields a heavy veto pen.

Sen. Scott Martin (R-Lancaster) told LNP: “When the door is slammed shut on something we believe the vast majority of people support, we have to move forward.”

One of the problems inherent with the amendment process is the difference in beliefs between the not only the majority and minority parties, but also the “wishes of the people.”

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) wrote an editorial on election integrity in Pennsylvania. In the editorial, she wrote about the measures requiring voter ID and election audits as part of the constitutional amendment process. She quoted a “Muhlenberg College poll found 40% of voters didn’t trust the results of the 2020 election,” despite the findings of the January 6th Special Committee that the person with the largest megaphone – former President Donald Trump – knew that the election was not fraudulent.

“This is just us giving the people of Pennsylvania the ability to put their voice in what their laws are.” Ward said. It is “taking power back to the Legislature and away from the (Pennsylvania) Supreme Court.”

Ward’s mention of the court is important. Passing an amendment gives the Legislature double protection against seeing legislation they favor being overturned. The Supreme Court has a Democratic majority that Republicans accuse of meddling too much in policy, such as when the justices declared ballot drop boxes to be legal ahead of the 2020 election.

“The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is a creature of the constitution,” and therefore unlikely to challenge its underlying authority,” said former federal prosecutor Bruce Antkowiak, a professor at Saint Vincent College.

Constitutional amendments are not immune from a federal court challenge, Antkowiak said. But those challenging the amendment would have to show it violates the U.S. Constitution, he said.


10 Responses

  1. In 2020, the PA and US Supreme Courts, by a vote of 4-3 and a tied 4-4 vote respectively, rewrote an election law that required all mail-in ballots to have legible postmarks and be received by 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Election Day. They decided that it really meant that “mail-in” ballots with no postmarks that somehow arrived on the counting tables before 5:00 p.m. on the following Friday were ‘timely’ and legal. To be crystal clear, if a stack of “mail-in” ballots with no postmarks somehow showed up on the Friday after the polls closed, they were counted as legal votes. Biden was officially credited with winning 50.01% of the vote in Pennsylvania in 2020.

    The removal of the legal requirement to have a postmark not only allowed drop boxes to be used for ballots, it also made it impossible to prosecute anybody who created a fake ballot for mail fraud. Our judiciary deliberately short-circuited one of the major legal protections for mail-in ballots: they must be mailed. The US Postal Service tracks the mail closely to backtrace criminals who send letter bombs and anthrax through the mail. They have postal inspectors who spend entire careers finding mail fraud, and they prosecute such fraud in federal courts with federal charges that are difficult for local and state officials to ‘fix’ with a phone call to their drinking buddies. Ballots that are never placed in the mail automatically bypass this basic safeguard against voter fraud.

    The Democrats have corrupted the executive and judicial branches of the state government so thoroughly that constitutional amendments are the only way to permanently correct state election rules.

    For many more details, go to ‘ensign’ dot ‘substack’ dot ‘com’.

  2. Our fellow Pennsylvanians express concern about taxpayer abortions etc. and yes, that can be a legitimate debate to have if there are concerns. But also what about taxpayers funding their local PA state senators and reps in the PA General Assembly a paycheck that they are not earning or working for? Instead of doing their job description of making and passing laws and representing the people in their districts back home, which is what YOU the voter hire them to do on Election Day, they instead drop back and punt their job to us, the voter again, in the form of the constitutional amendment ballot questions . If the voters are going to be such busy bees on Election Day with extra long, never ending ballot questions one after another to read and weigh in on, maybe we the voters should collect a paycheck from the PA General Assembly too then! We are taking over and doing their jobs voting YAY or NAY on issues that they should be legislating in the first place. We send them to Harrisburg on Election Day to do the peoples business, not to turn around and pass the buck back to us with all these constitutional amendments. PA politicians use this process when they can’t get their political party’s agenda passed if it does not align with whomever is siting in the governors office at the time. No laws being made, passed, and signed into law = no paycheck for PA elected politicians. Stop passing the buck, the people already hired you to do their bidding in the previous election!

  3. If you can’t win elections change the system to your benefit. These changes are outrageous and wrong.

    1. Wrong. Let the voters have a say in major issues like abortion and election integrity. This is not the end of abortion in PA. It’s just an end to the taxpayers paying for elective abortions. If you want to kill your baby then you pay for it.

    2. It’s called the Constitution. Don’t like it Ammend it . Get more people to vote for it. Federal Powers are limited. Judiciary is meant to be the weakest of the 3 branches.

  4. PA MAGA GOP will do anything to grab and hold power. Nothing is too underhanded or despicable.

    1. It’s called the Constitution. You should read it, study it, teach it, to be able to defend it and assert it. Nothing to do w power. Everything to do w the law.

    2. Your comment has a level of stupid no one has ever seen. We are all dumber for having read it.


  • Understanding that basic education funding should/will be first, what should be the next highest priority for the General Assembly?

    • Raising The Minimum Wage (25%)
    • Legalizing Adult-Use Marijuana (24%)
    • None of the above. Something Else. (20%)
    • Economic Development (14%)
    • Higher Education (8%)
    • Public Transportation (8%)
    • Workforce Opportunities and Innovation (2%)

    Total Voters: 51

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