Change Doesn’t Come So Easily


There are a few bills now pending in the State Legislature which make for interesting reading. We noted three in today’s Update of legislative activity from the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

Senate Bill 133, previously introduced by Senator Argall (R-Schuykill County), has received its Second Consideration and has now been referred to the Appropriations Committee for its analysis of what fiscal impact it might have.  The bill proposes that the State Constitution be amended to allow candidates for the office of Governor be allowed to choose their own running mates, so that the candidates for the offices of Governor and Lieutenant Governor would campaign for election as a team, much as the President and Vice-President are permitted to do.

Pennsylvanians seem to have had discussions about modifying or even eliminating the Office of the Lieutenant Governor for some time.  Earlier this year, Charles Gerow, a thoughtful opinion writer, commented in his column for PennLive (The Patriot News): “In human anatomy, vestigial organs, like the appendix, are those that have lost their original function and exist without much impact.  In the body politic, several government ‘reformers’ are suggesting that the office of lieutenant governor is much the same.”  He pointed out that some States smaller than Pennsylvania have fared well without a Lieutenant Governor.  But he concluded that, although the Office appears to have minimal functions other than such duties as may be assigned by the Governor, Pennsylvania should probably maintain the Office, in light of several instances in which it became necessary for a Lieutenant Governor to ascend to the Office of Governor.

Whatever the fiscal impact of Senate Bill 133 might be, its proposal to amend the State Constitution may be a bit premature, until we’ve wrestled with exactly why the position of Lieutenant Governor was fashioned the way it has been.

Representative Thomas (D-Bucks County) has proposed an amendment to the State Constitution that would increase the length of a Senator’s term of office from 4 to 6 years and a Representative’s term of office from 2 to 4 years.  In addition, the amendment would limit the terms of members of the House and Senate to three consecutive full terms.  (That would be potentially 18 years of service for a Senator, and 12 years of service for a Representative).  In her Memorandum introducing House Bill 902, she says, “By increasing the term length while setting term limits, my proposed amendment enables Pennsylvania to have fresh perspectives in government while allowing those members who are elected to focus on serving the people instead of worrying about reelection.”  She further indicates that, A member of the House “who reaches the maximum number of consecutive terms, may seek election to the House after a hiatus two years, and a member of the Senate who reaches the maximum number of consecutive terms, can be eligible for election to the Senate after four years.”

One may wonder what rule would apply under the legislator’s proposed Constitutional amendment if a Representative chooses to resign one month before reaching the maximum number of consecutive terms and then runs for election to the Senate.

Representative Schlossberg (D-Lehigh County) has introduced House Bill 892, proposing that, because the form of a person’s written signature tends to change over time, the law should make it easier for voters to update their voter registration signature by submitting a voter registration application to the county board of elections.  In his Memorandum introducing the proposal, he indicates, “It should be that simple.”

One may wonder how simple it might be for a voter to file another application if he or she should suffer a stroke the day after filing a previous application.

Modifying the rules by which we are governed, particularly when they involve changes to the structure of government, require both time and careful thought.

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Reform of Pennsylvania’s Election Laws Springing Up

In geopolitics, it is said that Springtime is when one sees growth, reform, innovation, state and nation building, and development of new ideas for governing society. In that respect. today’s Update of yesterday’s legislative activity in the Pennsylvania General Assembly is one of the more interesting reports we have seen in some time.

Senator Folmer (R-Dauphin County), Chair of the Senate Committee on State Government, has introduced a series of bills with an interesting preliminary Memorandum. He says, “Last Session, the Senate State Government Committee spent considerable time assessing Pennsylvania’s Election Code. This session, the Committee intends to address a number of issues identified by our analyses. As a convenience for everyone, we are presenting the following proposals by various Senators on these issues in a single, joint co-sponsorship….”

Are we finally going to see some progress in updating the State’s election laws?  The initiative is being co-sponsored by Senators Schwank (D-Berks County) and Killion (R-Chester, Delaware Counties) and others.  The Senators have identified these bills that have been submitted:

Senate Bill 411, offered by Senator Folmer, is a Joint Resolution proposing that the State Constitution be amended to remove the requirement that individuals wishing to vote by absentee ballot state a reason for the request.

The topic is one that has been discussed often in circles of those who follow Pennsylvania’s election law activity. Note that this bill is an indication that accomplishment of this reform measure requires that the State Constitution be amended — a process which requires that the proposal be first passed with identical wording by both chambers of the Legislature in each of two successive (2 year) sessions and then be put up for a vote by the electorate.  (That in itself reminds all of us that there are advantages and disadvantages when procedural issues are embedded in a Constitution rather setting them out by statute. What is described as a “simple” Constitutional amendment is in reality a time-laden endeavor that requires careful thought and wording). It is likely that some years will pass before we see the proposal implemented.

Senate Bill 412, introduced by Senator Stefano (R-Fayette, Somerset Counties), is another in the series of bills identified for action.  It, too, proposes a Constitutional amendment, this one to remove a stipulation that a person may not serve as an election official if he or she is or has been an appointed or elected official or employee of government. The stipulation includes various exceptions, which would also be repealed.

Senate Bill 413, introduced by Senator Martin (R-Lancaster County) would also have the Constitution amended to remove a stipulation that, if a judge files a declaration of candidacy for “retention election,” his or her name be set out on a separate ballot or in a separate column on the ballot.

Senate Bill 414, introduced by Senator Schwank, proposes various changes in the State’s Election Code to:  “reduce the requirements when applying for absentee ballots; mail absentee ballots earlier; give voters more time to return absentee ballots; eliminate the public posting of absentee voters, and clarify other requirements related to absentee ballots.” 

Senate Bill 415, introduced by Senator Folmer, proposes that Pennsylvania follow the lead of 8 other states and amend its Election Code to: “allow voters to join a permanent absentee voting list.  Once a voter opts in, he or she automatically receives an absentee ballot for all future elections.” The statutory change would also include procedures for removing inactive voters.

Senate Bill 416, introduced by Senator Killion proposes that the Election Code be amended to: establish “Voting Centers” and to allow “curbside voting.”  His introductory Memorandum explains: “Using other state laws as models, we propose to give counties the option to establish “Vote Centers” and to better provide for voters with disabilities. Vote Centers” are alternatives to traditional, neighborhood-based precincts.  By giving counties the option of using Vote Centers, voters are able to cast their ballots at any Vote Center in the county – regardless of their home address.  Thirteen states currently allow jurisdictions to use Vote Centers on Election Day:…As Vote Centers provide voters with greater convenience, they may increase voter turnout.  Additionally, there are possible cost savings for counties opting to establish Vote Centers.”

The Senator further explains, “We are also proposing to better assist voters with disabilities by allowing for “curbside voting”.  If a voter is physically unable to enter a poll, he or she may ask an election officer to bring a ballot to the entrance of the polling place or to a car parked at the curb.  Those assisting must read voters the entire ballot – unless the voter asks to have only parts of the ballot read to them.  It would be illegal for anyone assisting a voter to: try to influence the voter’s vote; mark the voter’s ballot in a way other than the way they have asked; or tell anyone how the voter voted.”

Senate Bill 417, introduced by Senator Martin, would change statutes relating to candidates who win election by write-in votes.  He explains that, sometimes, write-in ballots carry unintended consequences. For example, a person who wins an election by a write in ballot may be uninterested in the position or may be unqualified.  His bill would require that “successful write-in candidates receive the same number of write-in votes as would be required if they had filed signed nomination petitions.  For example, if ten petition signatures are required for a given office, a write-in candidate would need to receive a minimum of ten identical write-in votes to be elected to that office.”

Senate Bill 418, introduced by Senators Stefano and Martin, would change the number of ballots that are required to be printed for elections.  He explains, “Current law requires counties to have ‘one book of fifty official ballots of each party for every forty-five registered and enrolled electors’.  This requirement to have 110% of the number of registered voters at polls results in needless costs to counties.  We propose to give counties the discretion to print 10% more than the highest number of ballots cast in the previous three Primaries or General Elections in an election district.  This change was recommended by the Joint State Government Committee in its December 2017 report on Voting Technology in Pennsylvania.”

Finally, Senate Bill 419, introduced by Senator Folmer, would propose to ease the burden of preparing precincts for elections by allowing counties to consolidate precincts with fewer than 250 registered voter.  “We propose to give counties the option of either mailing ballots to voters in precincts with fewer than 250 registered voters or allowing counties to consolidate election districts under 250 registered voters. Counties using the mail ballot option for small precincts would be required to give voters advance notice they will receive mail ballots and there will be no polling place for them on Election Day.  These voters would mail their ballots back to the county like an absentee ballot.  Counties using the consolidation option would be allowed to combine small precincts into neighboring election districts — as long as they give voters in the to-be-combined district at least 90 days advance notice prior to a Primary Election.”

These are all interesting proposals, reflecting that the group of Senators has spent some time in thoughtful reform and improvement of the State’s election laws.  Can we hope for progress as well on issues such as gerrymandering, opening political party primaries to independent voters, reform of the size and costliness of the State Legislature, and, perhaps, meaningful campaign finance. reform?

A New Effort to Reinvent Government

Occasionally, as we review Pennsylvania’s legislative activity pertaining to election laws, we find in the General Assembly’s daily “Update” a report of new proposals that may not pertain directly to voting or elections, but which appear to have such scope and far-reaching impact on the structure of the State’s government that they should probably be noted for anyone concerned about government and what our elected representatives are doing to improve it. Today’s Update included once such report that we would like to share.

A bill in the State House of Representatives has been reprinted and re-designated as House Bill 56.  Initially designated as House Bill 52, the measure is a re-introduction of a proposal that was made in the 2017-2018 session of the Legislature.  Curiously, the bill’s heading now recites: “Introduced by Prime Sponsor Withdrew,” and then it lists the names of 17 current co-sponsors.  The indication that the bill’s Sponsor has withdrawn of course leaves us wanting further information. But, let’s focus on the bill itself. A January 28 Memorandum re-introducing the bill had indicated that the intent of the bill is (as it was in the previous legislative session) to “reinvent” Pennsylvania’s government. To review that initial proposal, the Memorandum described the initiative, in part, as follows:

“Since taking over the majority, House Republicans have promised the people of Pennsylvania we would work to reinvent government to improve delivery of government services while reducing the cost to taxpayers. As part of this effort, we introduced a series of bills last session which were based on Governor Wolf’s proposal of merging the Department of Health and Human Services and added several other agencies. In total our proposal would have taken eight state agencies and merge them into four while consolidating the commonwealth’s economic development programs and eliminating outdated boards/commissions.

“As we enter the new legislative session, we plan to not only reintroduce this package, but expand our vision for how we can improve establish BEST practices (Better Government, Economic Prosperity, Stronger and Healthier Communities for Taxpayers) in Harrisburg.

“In order to provide taxpayers and the people of Pennsylvania the Better Government, promised in our proposal, these bills will merge eight existing state agencies into four new state agencies. These new agencies would be the Commonwealth Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Department of Business, Tourism and Workforce Development (DBTWD), the Department of Local Government and Community Affairs (DLGCA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Each merger in the legislation will require the adoption of a strategic plan detailing how the agencies described in the legislation are to be combined. To provide adequate time to prepare for the mergers, the legislation gives seven months following the effective date to develop the strategic plan….

“Additionally, this proposal creates a better government by eliminating obvious areas of inefficiency and redundancy in state government. This includes eliminating the state’s many outdated and unnecessary boards and commissions. These boards, many whom have not met in years, no longer fulfill the purpose for which they were created. At the same time, our proposal would merge the management of PSERS and SERS in order to reduce the cost to taxpayers for the separate management of the separate public pension systems.”

However, the current (March 14, 2019) re-print of the text of the bill’s 46 pages appears to deal largely with what is perhaps only one facet of the entire proposal, namely: new provisions regarding “administrative procedures and procurement of information technology.”  The bill sets out new statutory language pertaining to the Office of Information Technology within the Governor’s Office of Administration.  The bill has been referred to the House Committee on State Government for consideration. Hopefully, further information will be forthcoming.

In other news of the day, the Senate Committee on State Government was scheduled to meet today to consider, among other matters, Senate Bill 178, a proposal to require that campaign finance reports be filed electronically in order to facilitate public access to information about political candidates’ receipts and expenditures.

The Journey continues

This post is being made as a test as the League of Women Voters of the Lewisburg (PA) Area endeavors to make a transition in the formatting of its blog postings about PA’s State legislative activities.  82 prior posting concerning State legislative activities have been made by Blue Jacket as comments (replies) to the blog’s initial post (“The Journey Begins,” Feb 3, 2018).  Moving forward now, postings about our State’s legislative activity relating to election laws will be presented as individual postings, rather than as replies to the League’s initial post. To make that transition, this post is being made by Blue Jacket on March 19, 2019.  We hope you’ll bear with us as we attempt to make the posts easier for our local League members to access, to read, and to respond to, while also making the blog easier for our contributing authors to format and edit. Your input is welcome and would be helpful to the effort to make the transition as smoothly as we can.

The State Legislature’s daily Update of activity for March 13, 2019, included reports of the following proposals for new legislation.

1.  Senator Vogel (R-Beaver County) re-introduced a bill from the 2017-18 legislative session.  Senate Bill 422 would establish a Pennsylvania Election Law Advisory Board. The board would be charged with the following duties:

  • Study the election code to identify statutory language that can be repealed, modified or updated.
  • Collaborate with agencies and political subdivisions to study election related issues.
  • Study new election technology.
  • Evaluate the electoral process and identify best practices to ensure voting integrity and efficiency.
  • Publish an annual report with the findings on the PA Department of State’s website.

Members of the board will include legislative appointees, one member of each congressional district, an advocate for individuals with disabilities, an advocate for voter’s rights, and a county election official, an advocate for voter’s rights, and a county election official. The bill has been referred to the Senate’s Committee on State Government for consideration.

2.  Representative Dermody (D-Allegheny County) has introduced House Bill 795, a Campaign Finance Reform measure.  His Memorandum introducing the bill proposes additional disclosures by contributors to political campaigns. He proposes that the law “require companies looking to write checks to ask the shareholders just who should get any donation over $10,000. Shareholders are the ‘owners’ so they shouldn’t have to sit back while the CEO takes their money and gives it without oversight. Finally, we’re going to put hard caps on how much any donation can be. Here’s what the new limits would be:

  • $1,500 per election to House and Senate candidates
  • $5,000 per election to statewide candidates
  • $10,000 per election to House and Senate candidates from PACs
  • $10,000 per election to PAC’s from political parties
  • $250,000 aggregate limit per election for House and Senate candidates
  • $1,000,000 aggregate limit per election for statewide candidates
  • $5,000,000 aggregate limit per election for governor”

The bill has been referred to the House Committee on State Government for consideration.