Mail the 2020 ballots to Voters for return by Mail ?

The daily Update of legislative activity in the Pennsylvania General Assembly reports that Senator Daylin Leach (D-Philadelphia and Montgomery counties) has introduced a bill proposing that, for the 2020 elections, the State mail applications for absentee ballots to all registered voters, together with a postpaid envelope for returning the application.

In his introductory Memorandum the Senator says: “Under current law, a voter can already apply for an absentee ballot online, by mail, or in-person. Under this new bill, which applies only to the 2020 primary and general elections, election officials would be required to mail an absentee ballot application to every eligible voter alongside a postage-paid envelope that voters may use to return their absentee ballot application. The bill would not require voters to apply for an absentee ballot and would not affect voters’ ability to vote in-person at their regular polling place.”

This bill is a companion to House Bill 2367, introduced previously by Representative Kevin Boyle (D-Delaware and Montgomery counties). That bill proposes that $40 million be appropriated to accomplish the task for both mail-in ballot applications for qualified mail-in electors as well as for mail-in ballots. The text of Senate Bill 1098 is currently being revised.

The bills have been referred to the Committee on State Government for each of the respective chambers.

Confused? Does anyone remember Danny Kaye in the 1955 film, The Court Jester? “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle. The chalice from the palace has the brew that is true. Right?” (But, they broke the chalice from the palace. So, the pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon! The vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true!)

Emergency Being Addressed by Legislature

Today’s daily Update of legislative activity in the Pennsylvania General Assembly reports that both chambers of the Legislature have now approved Senate Bill 422 as amended, and that it is on its way to the Governor for signature. The bill states that it will be effective immediately.

The bill, you may recall, pertains to the establishment of an Elections Law Advisory Board to guide the Legislature in making changes to the State’s Election Code. As amended, the bill now includes “Emergency Provisions for the 2020 General Primary Election.” One of those emergency provisions states:

“Section 1804 – B.  General Primary Election.

“Notwithstanding Section 603 or any law of this Commonwealth, the general primary election shall occur throughout this Commonwealth on June 2, 2020.”

That’s a change from the current April date.

(Oh. Yeh. We should probably mention that just before that emergency provision is this one:

“Section 1803 -B,  Permissible Polling Place Locations

“Subject to subsection (B) and notwithstanding Section 529 (A) and (B) or any other law of the Coommonwealth, malt or brewed beverages and liquors may be served in a building where a polling place is located during the hours that the polling place is open, except that an election may not be held in a room where malt or brewed beverages or liquors are dispensed).”

Hmmmm. An emergency is an emergency, I guess. Any port in a storm. I wonder who owns the building.

Ahime, I Giorni stanno cambiando — Hurrah, per il Nuovo Giorno

The daily Update of legislative activity at the Pennsylvania General Assembly reports that, yesterday, Representative Christopher Rabb (D-Philadelphia), introduced House Bills 2338, 2339, and 2340, which propose that Columbus Day be deleted from the State’s list of Legal Holidays and that Election Day, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November annually be designated as a Legal Holiday instead.  The bills have been co-sponsored by five other Democrats and have been referred to the Committee on Commerce for its consideration.

In his introductory Memorandum, the Representative points out that in the past half century, voter turnout has declined from over 80% to often less than 50%.  Together, the three bills: remove Columbus Day from the list of days in the 1893 law known as the Legal Holiday Act, repeal the 1963 law which provided that October 12 be observed as Columbus Day, and amend the Banking Code of 1965 to delete Columbus Day from the list of days which banks may, at their option, declare Legal Holidays.

House Bill 2340, in particular, allows public and private employers and public schools to provide their employees sufficient time to exercise their right to vote on Election Day.  The bill also directs the Governor to issue a proclamation annually to commemorate voting as the foundation of democratic government and as something that should be protected, promoted and practiced.

Observations?  The provision for a proclamation by the Governor seems rather curious when one considers the Legislature’s own penchant for reserving to itself the privilege of adopting Resolutions to honor special days, events, and notable persons.  Perhaps, the Legislature will continue to match its usual St. Patrick’s Day resolution in March each year with a Columbus Day resolution in October.  Also, given the short period of time between October 12 and Election Day, the transition to the new holiday should not present significant interruption in commercial activity; and day-trippers seem to have already adjusted well to the unpredictability of the best weekend for leaf peeping.

Campaign Finance Cleanup Effort

The daily Update of legislative activity at the Pennsylvania General Assembly reports that House Bill 1953 was introduced yesterday by Representative Kevin Boyle (D – Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties).

The bill would establish a “Freedom From Influence Fund” to provide a 6-to-1 match of campaign funds to candidate who rely upon small donations for their election campaigns. The bill has been referred to the House Committee on State Government for consideration.

Putting Meat on the Redistricting Table

Today’s daily Update of legislative activity in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly reports that Representative Jim Gregory (R- Blair County) has now introduced House Bill 2327, with 9 cosponsors, 6 of whom are Republicans and 3 of whom are Democrats.

The bill sets out in detail proposed procedures for constituting a 15-member independent commission of citizens to devise Congressional redistricting maps.   The 21 page bill appears to have been thoughtfully prepared, well organized in its presentation, and quite thorough in its scope  —  well worth an easy read by anyone interested in the State’s effort to address redistricting and gerrymandering.  It has been referred to the House Committee on State Government for consideration.

In his November 2019 Memorandum to his fellow legislators, Representative Gregory had described the bill as intended to: “establish an Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission consisting of commissioners registered with the Republican Party, Democratic Party and individuals in minority parties or unaffiliated voters. Pennsylvania citizens will apply to be on the Commission through an open application process and be chosen to best reflect the diversity of our Commonwealth including age, race, ethnicity, gender and geography of our state. Elected officials, Political Party officers and staff, political consultants and state or federal lobbyists will not be permitted to serve on this Commission. Applicants to the commission will also be required to disclose other potential conflicts of interest.”

As an example of the detail included among the bill’s 16 sections, we see provision for a process that allows voters to apply for membership on the commission until a total of 180 applications has been received (60 from the majority political party, 60 from the minority party, and 60 from other parties or unaffiliated voters).  The Secretary of the Commonwealth would then first select 120 of the applicants who meet stipulated criteria, giving consideration to racial, ethnic, demographic, and gender diversity.  Those selected applications would next be set out in three groups of 40 (one for each of the described categories of voters). The Chairs of the Senate and House Committees on State Government would next select 60% of the qualified applicants from those lists, and their selected list would be reviewed by the leaders of the Senate and House, who would each then be allowed to select a candidate from each category of voters. The resultant list (nine candidates) would then meet to select the remaining six members of the commission from the lists provided.

The commission would be required to conduct at least 9 public hearings — before proceeding to draw any proposed maps — and at least 6 public hearings thereafter.  Members of the public would be allowed to submit comments as well as maps of their own for consideration.  The commission’s proposed and final maps would be presented to the General Assembly for approval by at least 50% of the members of the House and the Senate.  If the General Assembly fails to approve the final maps, the State Supreme Court would be allowed to rule.  The bill also expressly stipulates that commission members would be entitled to compensation of $300 per diem, adjusted for inflation.

These notes do not adequately summarize all that is in the bill. But, on the whole, we think the bill is a well-done work of draftsmanship, sometimes rarely found among a legislature’s offerings. It will now be interesting to see whether or not advocates, lobbyists, and others find it acceptable.

A Proposal to Allow Periodic Constitutional Conventions

The daily Update of activity from Pennsylvania’s General Assembly reports that Senator Phillips-Hill (R-York County) has now introduced Senate Bill 1035. The bill proposes that the State Constitution be amended to allow citizens to periodically request (once every 20 years) a Constitutional Convention for the limited purposes of reviewing and proposing amendments to the State Constitution. The bill has been referred to the Committee on State Government for consideration.

The bill proposes that a question be placed on the ballot asking voters if a Constitutional Convention should take place. If a majority of voters support the ballot measure, a Constitutional Convention would be called by the Governor. Each convention would consist of 150 members – three from each state senatorial district. Recommendations from the convention would be submitted to the voters for approval or rejection in the first Primary or General Election following the convention.

The Senator indicates that the Conventions would be limited to proposing changes to:

  • Sections 3, 4, 8 and 16 of Article II of the Constitution (dealing with terms, size and compensation of the General Assembly);
  • Sections 13, 22, 24 and 26 of Article III (dealing with prohibitions on voting, no-bid contracts, spending without a budget in place), as well as Subarticle A (dealing with amendments to bills on third consideration);
  • Sections 4 and 14 of Article IV (dealing with duties of the lieutenant governor); and
  • Sections 10, 17 and 18 of Article V (dealing with independent review, work outside of the courts, and suspension of judges).

Recent Bills in the PA General Assembly

The Pennsylvania General Assembly’s Updates of activity include reports of the following legislative bills recently introduced.

In the House of Representatives, House Bill 2249 was introduced on January 30 by Representative Warren (D-Bucks County).  The bill proposes that uniform standards be established for reports of campaign expenditures.  It has been referred to the Committee on State Government for consideration.

Also on January 30, Representative Kail (D-Beaver and Washington Counties) introduced House Bill 2265 which he has referred to as an Anti-Grandstanding bill.  It would prohibit row officers (the Attorney General, the Auditor General, and the State Treasurer) from filing petitions to be nominated for the position of Governor and that they be restricted from seeking that position until they have been out of office for a period of two years.

In the State Senate, on January 31, Senators Boscola (D-Lehigh) and Killion (R-Chester and Delaware Counties) have introduced updated versions of bills pertaining to Congressional Reapportionment and Legislative Redistricting.

The bills have a number of co-sponsors and apparently support for at least one of the bills from the Fair Districts advocacy group.  Senate Bill 1022 proposes that the State Constitution be amended to provide for reapportionment and redistricting by an 11-member independent commission of citizens.  Senate Bill 1023 contains much of what had been proposed last April in House Bill 23 and sets out provisions for legislation which would implement the proposal contained in Senate Bill 1022 – even during the time in which the process of amending the Constitution is pending — insofar as Senate Bill 1023 is consistent with the Constitutional change.

However, Senate Bill 1023 seems to preserve the Legislature’s authority to draw its own district boundaries; that is, it provides for an Independent Redistricting Commission (like Senate Bill 1022), but it also includes provisions for a “Legislative Reapportionment Commission.”  And, Senate Bill 1022 acknowledges and endeavors to preserve the Legislature’s authority regarding reapportionment and redistricting inasmuch as it includes provisions for the Legislature’s political party leaders to strike a limited number of candidates from the lists of applicants who desire to serve on the citizens’ Independent Redistricting Commission. In order to minimize the risk of undue influence by political parties in the redistricting process, the bills continue to set forth specific provisions regarding eligibility for membership on the commission.

It is interesting that Senate Bill 1023 divides its proposed new law into four Chapters, numbered 1, 3, 5, and 7. Perhaps that odd numbering is some indication that more work on the Bill is contemplated by way of amendments. Both bills have been referred to the Committee on State Government for consideration.

New Action in the Senate

Post for January 29, 2020.

The daily Update of legislative activity in the Pennsylvania Legislature today reports that, yesterday, the State Senate saw action on three bills that might be of interest.

Senate Bill 133, which was previously passed by the Senate, was subsequently passed with an amendment in the House of Representatives, and was then referred to the Rules Committee for concurrence, came back from the Rules Committee and was signed by the State Senate.  The bill calls for an amendment to the State Constitution to revise the way in which the Lieutenant Governor is chosen and elected.  Once the bill is signed into law, it will have to be passed again in the 2021-22 session of the Legislature before it can be submitted to the voters for approval of the change in the State Constitution.  If the voters agree, candidates for the position of Governor would be allowed to choose and to campaign with their own choice of Lieutenant Governor, and voters would cast a single vote for the Governor and Lieutenant Governor (much like the way the President and Vice-President are chosen at the federal level).

Senator Gordner’s proposal, Senate Bill 779, has had a fiscal analysis by the Appropriations Committee and was returned to the Senate where it will be ready the Third of three required considerations. The bill calls for the date of Pennsylvania’s Presidential Primary to occur earlier than it has been.  If the bill is passed by the Senate, it must go to the House of Representatives for consideration, and then to the Governor for signature into law.  If enacted, the law would modify the State Elections Code to stipulate that the State’s Presidential Primary will be held on the third Tuesday of March (instead of on the fourth Tuesday of April).  The change would take effect in 2024 and subsequent years and would not affect the dates of other types of party primaries.

The Appropriations Committee has also returned to the chamber Senate Bill 417 for its third of three required considerations.  The bill was one of nine proposed election reform bills that had been raised in previous years and which were resurrected earlier in the current session.  Specifically, this bill proposes to change the number of votes that a write-in candidate would have to receive before he or she can be authenticated as having been elected.  The number of votes would have to be no less than the same number of votes that would have been required if the candidate had formally declared candidacy and filed signed petitions for nomination to the office to which he or she is elected.  The change should resolve the issue of whether a candidate has been duly elected when someone writes-in a person’s name regardless of the person’s interest or qualifications for the office.

Reformations Proposed by the Legislature for the Judicial and Executive Branches

Last April, Representative Schemel (R-Franklin) introduced House Bill 111 to revise the way in which judges of the State’s Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth Courts are chosen.  The bill sets forth a Joint Resolution, supported by 11 co-sponsors.  After being considered by the House Judiciary Committee, the bill was given the first of three required considerations by the House of Representatives and since then has been laid upon the table several times.  Now that the House has resumed its legislative session, yesterday the bill was laid on the table and removed from the table for the fourth time.

The bill proposes that the State Constitution be amended to provide that, instead of selecting the judges of those three appellate courts by public election, the judges would be selected by means of a merit selection system, as is done in some other states.  In a merit system, elected officials would appoint a bipartisan nominating commission of citizens (lawyers and non-lawyers).  That nominating commission would review applicants’ qualifications and would recommend a short list of candidates to the Governor for nomination.  After nomination by the Governor, the nominees would undergo a confirmation hearing in the State Senate.  Once their nominations have been confirmed by the Senate, the judges would sit for a four year term.  Then, and every 10 years thereafter, the judges must stand for a nonpartisan “retention election.”

Representative Schemel indicated in his Memorandum to fellow legislators:

“Merit selection is a better way to ensure a fair, impartial, and qualified judiciary. Merit selection focuses on qualifications: legal experience, reputation for ethical behavior, honesty, fairness and good temperament. Appellate court judges would no longer be chosen based on their ballot position, campaign fundraising abilities, or where they live.  Judicial candidates would no longer be required to engage in a process that leaves them seemingly beholden to wealthy lawyers and special interest groups who might appear before them in court. Removing money from our courtrooms helps to increase public confidence in the courts.”

His bill proposes that the nominating commission consist of 13 members, reflecting geographic, gender, racial, and ethnic diversity:

>>  5 appointed by the Governor (no more than 3 from one party; 5 different counties);

>>  8 by the General Assembly (2 from each of 4 caucus leaders, half lawyers and half laypeople).

Commonwealth employees, elected or appointed officials, and political party officials would be prohibited from serving on the commission.

The State Senate, too, has taken up a reform bill that was introduced earlier in the current legislative session.  Last January, Senator Argall (R-Berks and Schuykill) had introduced Senate Bill 133, a Joint Resolution proposing that the State Constitution be amended to revise the way in which the Lieutenant Governor is chosen.  The bill proposes that, the Governor be allowed to select his or her own running mate, much like the US President and Vice-President are selected and campaign as a team with shared vision for the executive branch.  Argall points out that the revised procedure would “provide for greater trust in the executive branch to delegate duties while avoiding potential division and friction between the two office holders.”

The bill had been passed by the Senate in April, 2019, and was, with an amendment of the phrasing, passed by the House of Representatives in December, 2019.  Yesterday, the Senate referred the matter to the Rules Committee for reconcilement.  Once the two chambers have agreed upon the amended version, the bill would then be transmitted to the Governor for consideration and signature into law.

As is required, once enacted into law, bills resolving that the State Constitution be amended must be re-enacted on identical terms by the Legislature in the following legislative session, and the proposed change to the Constitution must then be approved by Pennsylvania voters in two succeeding elections.  It will be a few years before we see the changes proposed by HB 111 and SB 133 implemented in Pennsylvania.

The Legislature Re-convenes

The Pennsylvania General Assembly begins the second half of its 2019-2020 legislative session tomorrow, January 7, 2020. The House of Representatives will convene at noon in a non-voting session day.

Representative Gaydos (R-Allegheny) has introduced House Bill 2151, proposing that the size of the size of the General Assembly be reduced by reducing the current membership of 203 Representatives in the House to a membership of 151. (Notice the bill number that has been assigned by the Clerk to the proposal — 2151).

A proposal to accomplish such a change would require an amendment of the State Constitution, which requires that amendments be approved by both chambers of the legislature in two successive sessions, and then by vote of the electorate in two successive elections. The proposal had been approved by both chambers of the legislature in their 2015-2016 sessions, but it was passed by only the Senate in the 2017-2018 session. The bill has been referred to the House Committee on State Government for consideration. The Legislature must now re-trace its steps.

Is the length of time that the proposal has been considered (and has yet to be considered) some indication of inefficiency inherent in the nation’s second largest Legislature? Or, is it some indication of wisdom of the drafters of the Constitution who sought to ensure stability in the structure of the State government? The basic question remains: whether advances in technology and communication, as well as increases in administrative costs and taxpayer burden, have made it necessary and advisable to modify the size of the Legislature.