Pennsylvania

Explained: Ballot Questions for ALL Pa. Voters in the May 18 Election

Even if you're not registered with a political party, you can cast a vote in each of these four referendums on the ballot next month.

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What to Know

  • The pandemic power struggle between Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor and its Republican-led legislature over the year plus of COVID-19 will land on voters’ laps next month.
  • It's taking the form of two proposed constitutional amendments to limit the length of disaster emergencies. The primary is May 18.
  • There are four statewide ballot questions in all this spring. The others would put anti-discrimination language into the state constitution and give paid fire and rescue departments the same borrowing power that volunteer departments have had for decades.

Republican state lawmakers in Pennsylvania are asking voters to decide how much future Pennsylvania governors can hold sway over emergency declarations as part of four ballot questions next month.

Every registered voter in Pennsylvania can go to the polls May 18 and pick yes or no on each of the questions, even if a voter is not registered with a political party.

Two of the four questions have to do with powers in a statewide emergency after Republicans in control of the legislature raged for months over Gov. Tom Wolf's use of emergency declarations to make wide-ranging decisions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wolf opposed the questions, but governors have no power to prevent proposals to amend the constitution from going on the ballot for voters to consider.

However, the questions themselves became a political fight earlier this year as Republican lawmakers accused the Wolf administration of making the ballot questions' wording potentially confusing for voters.

“They clearly wrote it in a way for it to fail,” Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, Republican of Centre County, said in February, arguing the state's disaster emergency has gone on too long. “Look, even a benevolent dictator is still a dictator. And when you have unilateral control, one individual, that’s what you have.”

Politics aside, Pennsylvanians have overwhelmingly favored approving ballot questions over the last few decades. A majority of Pennsylvania voters have never rejected a ballot question, according to Ballotpedia. Between 1995 and 2019, 17 of 17 ballot questions have been approved by voters, according to the online election portal.

The third and fourth ballot questions pertain to whether voters would like to add equal rights protections to the state constitution and give paid fire departments the same money borrowing power as volunteer fire companies.

HOW TO VOTE IN MAY 18 ELECTION: The deadline to register to vote or to change your party designation is 5 p.m. on May 3. Voter applicants can use Pennsylvania's online voter registration system, and traditional paper voter registration forms are available at county voter registration offices. They must be returned to those offices by close of business on May 3. 

Here are the four questions on the ballot for voters' consideration on May 18. (They are indeed wordy.) Also included are links to election watchdogs Committee of Seventy and the League of Women's Voters, which both provide interpretations of each.

Pennsylvania Ballot Question #1

Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration—and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration—through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?

WHAT THIS MEANS (courtesy of the League of Women's Voters of Pennsylvania)

  • If you vote YES, you agree to give the Legislature, by a simple majority vote, the sole power to take away the Governor’s existing authority to make disaster emergency declarations and coordinate with relevant Pennsylvania agencies.
  • If you vote NO, you disagree with giving the Legislature, by a simple majority vote, the sole power to take away the Governor’s existing authority to make disaster emergency declarations and coordinate with relevant Pennsylvania agencies.

Pennsylvania Ballot Question #2

Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?

WHAT THIS MEANS (courtesy of the League of Women's Voters of Pennsylvania)

  • If you vote Yes, you agree to change existing law to limit any Governor’s disaster emergency declaration - no matter the severity - to 21 days (from 90), unless, and until, the Legislature votes by a simple majority to extend the disaster emergency declaration; and take away the Governor’s authority to manage new emergency and disasters situations.
  • If you vote No, you disagree with changing the existing law that provides any Governor with the power to issue emergency declarations without a 21-day limitation or a simple majority vote by the Legislature; and any Governor retains authority to act in emergency and disaster situations.

Pennsylvania Ballot Question #3

Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended by adding a new section providing that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of an individual’s race or ethnicity?

WHAT THIS MEANS (courtesy of the League of Women's Voters of Pennsylvania)

  • If you vote Yes, you agree that all levels of PA government, entities, and institutions be prohibited from discriminating against individuals because of their race or ethnicity.
  • If you vote No, you disagree with changing PA law since current state and federal laws, including the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, already provide protections against discrimination by all levels of Pennsylvania government, entities, and institutions

Pennsylvania Ballot Question #4

Do you favor expanding the use of the indebtedness authorized under the referendum for loans to volunteer fire companies, volunteer ambulance services and volunteer rescue squads under 35 PA.C.S. §7378.1 (related to referendum for additional indebtedness) to include loans to municipal fire departments or companies that provide services through paid personnel and emergency medical services companies for the purpose of establishing and modernizing facilities to house apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, and for purchasing apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, protective and communications equipment and any other accessory equipment necessary for the proper performance of the duties of the fire companies and emergency medical services companies?

WHAT THIS MEANS (courtesy of the League of Women's Voters of Pennsylvania)

  • If you vote YES, you support expanding PA’s loan program to paid municipal, as well as volunteer, fire and emergency medical services companies.
  • If you vote NO, you support keeping PA’s loan program available to volunteer fire
    and emergency medical service companies and not to paid municipal fire and
    emergency medical services companies.
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