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Pennsylvania’s spring primary: ballot issues, judicial races

May 15, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this May 12, 2021 file photo, Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at an event in Mechanicsburg, Pa. Beyond the local races on ballots, Pennsylvania’s primary election will determine the future of a governor’s authority during disaster declarations. Voters statewide Tuesday, May 18 will decide four separate ballot questions, including two on whether to give state lawmakers much more power over disaster declarations. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)
FILE - In this May 12, 2021 file photo, Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at an event in Mechanicsburg, Pa. Beyond the local races on ballots, Pennsylvania’s primary election will determine the future of a governor’s authority during disaster declarations. Voters statewide Tuesday, May 18 will decide four separate ballot questions, including two on whether to give state lawmakers much more power over disaster declarations. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Beyond a slew of local races on ballots, Pennsylvania’s primary election on Tuesday will determine the future of a governor’s authority during disaster declarations and a Republican nominee aiming to keep a state Supreme Court seat in GOP hands.

Voters statewide will decide four separate ballot questions, including two that ask voters whether to give state lawmakers much more power over disaster declarations, whether the emergency is another pandemic or a natural disaster.

The ballot questions were penned by Republican lawmakers and emerged from a long-running feud with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf over the extent of his orders to shutter businesses and schools during the pandemic.

The last time voters rejected a ballot question was in 1993, according to information provided by the state. Since then, voters have approved 19 straight ballot questions, usually bipartisan initiatives to expand borrowing authority or to amend the constitution.

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Voters also must decide contested primaries for open seats on the three statewide appellate courts: the Supreme Court, Superior Court and Commonwealth Court. Terms are 10 years.

Meanwhile, voters in four parts of the state will decide contests for open seats in the state Legislature.

If recent turnout patterns hold, fewer than one-fifth of Pennsylvania’s registered voters will determine the outcomes. About 820,000 voters had requested a mail-in or absentee ballot, about 70% of whom are registered Democrats, according to the state elections department.

Here is a look at the statewide ballot questions and contests for state offices:

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DISASTER DECLARATIONS

Republican lawmakers across the country have sought to roll back the emergency powers governors wielded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pennsylvania’s vote is the first of its kind since the coronavirus outbreak.

The two questions 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 and his emergency disaster director have called the proposals reckless and a threat to a functioning society if it prevents a fast and wide-ranging response to increasingly complicated disasters.

Republicans have accused Wolf of fear-mongering. The phrasing of the questions that will appear on the ballot was produced by the Wolf administration, although Republicans say the wording is politically slanted, designed to make the questions fail.

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The Legislature did not hold hearings on the measures, and they may end up in court if voters approve them because their effect is in dispute.

Republicans claim the governor cannot order shutdowns without a disaster emergency in effect. Wolf disagrees, saying a governor’s authority during a public health emergency rests on separate public health law and is unaffected by the ballot questions.

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ETHNICITY AND RACE

Voters must decide whether to add a passage to the constitution outlawing discrimination because of someone’s race or ethnicity.

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.

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.

Constitutional law professors say it will have little practical effect because courts already consider such discrimination to violate both the state and federal constitutions.

But the lawmaker who originally sponsored the provision, Sen. Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said court cases and judicial decisions will ultimately determine the practical effect of the proposal.

He also said he wants it in place in case federal anti-discrimination case law is reversed by the Republican-majority U.S. Supreme Court or conservative federal judges appointed by former President Donald Trump.

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FIRE DEPARTMENT LOANS

A fourth 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.

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APPELLATE COURT SEATS

The race for an open seat on Pennsylvania’s highest court won’t tip its balance of power, but the contest does have serious implications for the court’s conservative minority.

The retirement of Justice Thomas Saylor, a conservative, will leave the court with just one justice elected as a Republican and five elected as Democrats.

Running to succeed Saylor are three Republicans vying for the party nomination: Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick and two Commonwealth Court judges, Kevin Brobson of Cumberland County and Patricia McCullough of Allegheny County.

Election issues and gun rights have been prominent topics on the campaign trail.

Democrat Maria McLaughlin, a Superior Court judge, is uncontested for her party’s nomination.

One seat is open on the Superior Court, which handles criminal and civil appeals from county courts.

Democrats must settle a three-way contest and pick their party’s nominee from among 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.

Two seats are open on the Commonwealth Court, which handles lawsuits and appeals involving state agencies and governmental bodies.

Democratic voters must choose two from among four primary candidates: 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 in the primary.

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SPECIAL LEGISLATIVE ELECTIONS

Four seats in the state Legislature — two in the Senate and two in the House of Representatives — are vacant and will be filled in special elections Tuesday. The elections will not tip the balance of power in the 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.

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Associated Press writer Mark Scolforo contributed to this report.

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Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/timelywriter.