The Pennsylvania legislature has long been out of step with the majority of Pennsylvanians, passing bills with little public support and ignoring bills wanted by an overwhelming majority. This has become even more the case in recent months, so much so that we feel compelled to speak out on behalf of Pennsylvania voters.
A redistricting reform proposal with more cosponsors than any other in this session or the last was ignored completely by our legislative leaders. Numerous statewide surveys show 7 in 10 Pennsylvanians, from all parties and all parts of the state, support an independent redistricting commission. Yet the State Government Committee chairs, Rep. Garth Everett and Sen. John DiSanto, chose not to schedule votes on HB 22 and 23 and SB 1022 and 1023. Those bills are now dead, denying Pennsylvania an independent commission for the 2021 redistricting.
Important police reform bills, some obvious correctives to long-standing public concerns, were never considered in House or Senate Judiciary Committees until the House Black Legislative Caucus took over the speaker rostrum last June. Rep. Chris Rabb insisted: “We are legislators. Let us legislate.” Rep. Margo Davidson said: “Vote how you want. But let us take action on these bills.” That effort resulted in passage of just two of the bills in question. Many more still languish in committee without a vote as the clock ticks out on this legislative session.
While the West Coast burns in the hottest fires on record, both houses have pushed through a bill, HB 2025, blocking Pennsylvania entrance into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an attempt to curb carbon emissions. The state is fourth in the nation in carbon emissions. Entry to the RGGI would have significant impact for our state and the country. The Environment Resources and Energy Committee chairs, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe and Sen. Gene Yaw, held hearings where opponents of the initiative were invited to speak, but groups in support were denied equal time. On the Senate floor this week, attempts to amend or debate the bill were shut down in misuse of procedural rules that Minority Leader Jay Costa said “defied the spirit of democracy.”
Of even greater concern to the spirit of democracy: a much-needed election reform bill, with provisions to address concerns of county election officials, has been saddled with changes that would make the November election more difficult. Many counties used ballot drop boxes in the primary as a way to speed the return of mail-in ballots and ease the burden on the postal system. With no explanation, HB 2626, a bill that once had strong bipartisan support, was altered to block use of those collection boxes. One in six Americans returned ballots by drop boxes in the 2016 election and even more used them in the 2020 primary.
HB 2626 would also alter a long-standing prohibition against out-of-county poll watchers. Given Pennsylvania’s inadequate definition and regulation of poll watchers, such a move would put added burden on voters and election officials and add confusion and stress to polling places already struggling to provide staffing in the midst of a pandemic. These provisions have been pushed forward with no debate, no opportunity for amendment, no input from key stakeholders, no support from county election officials. Historic organizations like the League of Women Voters were not asked for comment and our emails of concern have not received a response.
The people of Pennsylvania have a constitutional right to clean air and water, to representation by elected officials, to alter and reform our government as we see fit. Those rights are being trampled as the legislative agenda is more and more controlled by a handful of leaders out of step with the majority of Pennsylvania voters, many elected from gerrymandered safe districts where they face no opposition.
As former Gov. Tom Ridge said so eloquently in an op-ed this week, “Voting should not be a partisan issue.” We agree completely. Please contact your state senators and ask them to vote no on HB 2626 unless it is amended to remove provision for out-of-county poll watchers and any restriction on the use of ballot drop-boxes.
And please think carefully about your vote for Pennsylvania legislators. Some of our representatives and senators are trying hard to represent us. Many others no longer listen to constituents or support procedural rules that allow all legislators a voice.