Pennsylvania Capitol Building. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).
By Patrick Beaty
Earlier this summer, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Elections posted a notice on its website about six proposed constitutional amendments approved by the General Assembly in its 2021-22 session.
As our Constitution requires, the Elections Bureau then sent this official notice to newspapers across the commonwealth so it could be published three times before the November election – during the first week of August, September and October.
If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s probably because you are among the large majority of people who don’t read print newspapers on a regular basis. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, only 10 percent of respondents say they often get their news from print publications. For those younger than 50, it’s just 4 percent.
Back in 1838, when the newspaper publication requirement was added to the Constitution, the expectation was that folks would read about constitutional changes voted upon once by the legislature, and then have time to express their feelings – and to vote accordingly – before the next legislature would vote again on the same amendments.
In Kremer v. Grant, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed earlier decisions holding that strict compliance with the specifics of the advertising process was necessary so that “an informed electorate” that disagrees with the proposed amendments “will have an opportunity to indicate their pleasure at the ballot box and elect individuals to the next General Assembly with different attitudes.”
Kremer was decided in 1992. Thirty years later it’s hard to say that printing notices three times in local newspapers will result in an informed electorate ready with the knowledge they need to elect candidates with different attitudes. But while the means may no longer be adequate, the need for an informed electorate has become even more critical.
That’s because Republicans who now control both chambers of the General Assembly have decided to use their majority power to limit our constitutional rights for their own political benefit and to advance a policy agenda opposed by virtually every Democratic legislator, as well as Gov. Tom Wolf.
Republicans are quick to justify their assault on our Constitution by saying they only want to “let the voters decide” in a referendum that comes at the end of the constitutional amendment process. As if democracy itself was the driving force behind their schemes.
Why then was it necessary to for the Senate to amend, and for the House to later pass, the bill in the dead of night when most of those same voters were unaware what was happening?
Could it be that they don’t really want to give voters opportunities to weigh in on these proposals until absolutely necessary? They’re probably hoping many voters won’t be thinking about this stuff when they vote in legislative elections this November since the constitutional changes won’t actually be on the ballot yet.
But if voters aren’t thinking about how their legislators are voting on major constitutional changes, one reason may be that the state is failing to inform them.
Article XI says the proposed amendments must be entered on the legislative journals “with the yeas and nays taken thereon, and the Secretary of the Commonwealth shall cause the same to be published three months before the next general election …”
Seems pretty clear that voters have a right to get the record of the yeas and nays as well as the amendments voted so they can decide whether to support a different candidate in the next election. After all, as the Supreme Court has said more than once, that is the whole purpose of the advertising requirement.
Here’s a suggestion. The Elections Bureau already has an extensive database of email addresses that they use to communicate with voters about upcoming election dates, polling place locations and deadlines to apply for mail-in ballots. Why not send voters the same official notice that the bureau already sends to newspaper publishers and include links to the relevant bills on the General Assembly website?
Voters could simply click on the roll call votes to find how their own senator or representative voted on the measure. The Bureau should also post the same links on its website along with the official notice of the amendments passing for the first time.
Pennsylvania can and should give voters the facts they need to “indicate their pleasure (or displeasure) at the ballot box” before the next General Assembly can vote on the same constitutional change proposals. Voters should demand nothing less.
Patrick Beaty served more than 20 years in the executive and legislative branches of Pennsylvania state government, including as legislative counsel to Gov. Robert Casey. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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