HARRISBURG, Pa. - Pennsylvania voters were given the opportunity to limit a governor’s emergency authority on Tuesday, more than a year after Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic restrictions drew fierce backlash among legislative Republicans, in an otherwise quiet off-year primary election that also included balloting for an open seat on the state’s highest court.
Voters of all kinds, including independents, were allowed to vote on four ballot questions, including two that stemmed from Republican lawmakers’ dissatisfaction with how Wolf, a Democrat, wielded his authority during the COVID-19 crisis.
It was the first vote of its kind since the coronavirus outbreak, as Republicans in nearly every state have sought to roll back governors’ authority during disaster emergencies.
For Republicans, the top-of-the-ticket race was an open state Supreme Court seat, with three GOP candidates vying for the nomination. The Democratic candidate ran unopposed.
Meanwhile, Democrat Bill Peduto faced a stiff challenge for another term as Pittsburgh mayor, and voters decided whether to write civil rights protections for race and ethnicity into the state constitution.
The two questions carry constitutional amendments that would give lawmakers much more power over disaster declarations, to apply whether the emergency is another pandemic or a natural disaster.
They ask voters to end a governor’s emergency disaster 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 opposes the change.
ETHNICITY AND RACE
Voters must 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.
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.
STATE SUPREME COURT
The three Republican candidates in a contested primary are Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick and two Commonwealth Court judges, Kevin Brobson of Cumberland County and Patricia McCullough of Allegheny County.
Brobson is endorsed by the state Republican Party, and has enjoyed a huge advantage in campaign spending, thanks in large part to more than $275,000 in help from a business advocacy organization whose money comes from suburban Philadelphia billionaire Jeffrey Yass.
Democrat Maria McLaughlin, a Superior Court judge, is uncontested for her party’s nomination.
They are running to replace the retiring Justice Thomas Saylor, a conservative whose departure will leave the court with one justice elected as a Republican and five elected as Democrats.
A term is 10 years, followed by an up-or-down retention election.
Voters in Philadelphia will cast ballots Tuesday in the Democratic Primary for the city's District Attorney that pits Larry Krasner, a reform-minded incumbent, against Carlos Vega, a veteran homicide prosecutor, likely deciding the future of the office in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.
Krasner, a 60-year-old longtime civil rights and defense attorney, won election in 2017 from a crowded field by billing himself as the outsider candidate capable of making radical changes.
Vega, who worked in the district attorney's office for 35 years under five administrations, says he would increase prosecutions of serious crimes while continuing to push for reforms and better ways of addressing addiction and mental illness. Vega, 64, has accused Krasner of age discrimination after he and many of the senior attorneys were fired during Krasner's transition into office.
Peduto, a Democrat, is seeking a third term in the heavily Democratic city in a primary that is all-but assured to anoint the winner of November's general election.
Peduto is facing three primary challengers, most notably five-term state Rep. Ed Gainey. If Gainey wins, he would become the first black mayor of Pittsburgh.
Voters are picking candidates in four special elections to fill vacant seats in the state Legislature, two in the Senate and two in the House of Representatives.
The elections will not tip the balance of power in the 253-seat Legislature, where Republicans control both chambers by comfortable margins.
A Lackawanna County-based Senate seat is expected to remain in the hands of Democrats. A second seat, based in Lebanon County, is expected to remain in GOP hands.
In the House, seats based in Westmoreland and Armstrong counties are likely to remain held by Republicans.
FIRE DEPARTMENT LOANS
A fourth ballot question will ask whether voters want to allow 22 municipal fire departments in Pennsylvania to have access to a 45-year-old low-interest loan fund that helps some 2,000 volunteer firefighting squads borrow money to pay for trucks, equipment and facilities.
The fund is administered by the office of the state fire commissioner.
OTHER APPELLATE COURTS
Democrats are picking from among three candidates for an open seat on the Superior Court, which handles criminal and civil appeals from county courts.
Running are Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Timika Lane and two lawyers in private practice, Bryan Neft of suburban Pittsburgh and Jill Beck of Pittsburgh.
Republican Megan Sullivan is uncontested for the nomination.
Meanwhile, Democrats must pick from among four candidates for two open seats on the Commonwealth Court, which handles lawsuits and appeals involving state and governmental agencies.
Running are Common Pleas Court Judge David Lee Spurgeon and lawyer Amanda Green Hawkins of Allegheny County and Common Pleas Court judges Lori Dumas and Sierra Street of Philadelphia.
Republicans Drew Crompton and Stacy Wallace are uncontested.
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