Amending the state constitution is an easy trick for GOP. It shouldn't be
Republicans in the state Legislature have a new trick up their sleeves.
They routinely pass bills to fulfill conservative talking points, from restrictions on voting to limiting abortion rights to allowing concealed carry of weapons without a permit. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf vetoes the bills, and the Legislature can't garner the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto.
That's how checks and balances works.
In seven years in office, Wolf has vetoed 54 bills, and none of those vetoes have been overturned.
In 2020, Wolf vetoed measures Republicans and a few Democrats put forward to rein in some mitigation efforts at the beginning of the pandemic, including bills designating shooting ranges as life-sustaining businesses, allowing local schools to set their own policies on sporting events and giving counties control over COVID-19 mitigation strategies.
Angry legislators first tried to push through a resolution to end Wolf's pandemic disaster declaration. When the state Supreme Court said they couldn't do that, they passed amendments to the state constitution and took the questions to voters.
In May's primary, Republicans managed to get two amendments passed. One amendment allows the General Assembly to end a disaster declaration made by the governor, the second terminates any disaster declaration after 21 days, to be continued only with the support of the Legislature.
The success of these two amendments apparently turned on light bulbs over the heads of some lawmakers. Why bother trying to get two-thirds of the Legislature to agree to overturn a veto when you can just get a regular majority of voters to do it?
Amending the constitution seems like an onerous process. Legislators must pass a resolution in two separate sessions, then it goes on the statewide ballot for voters. It takes more than a year.
But a simple majority is all that's needed to pass a resolution in the Legislature, and lawmakers can time their votes to choose when voters will see the measure on the ballot.
In the most recent case, the amendments on disaster declarations were before voters in the primary for the municipal elections, an off-year election for school boards and other local races that typically draws the smallest number of voters to the polls. Since Pennsylvania has closed primaries, many independent and third-party voters skip the primary.
And that's how, in a state with 8.76 million registered voters and with Democrats holding a 46% to 39% lead over Republicans, about 1.17 million yes votes, 52%, changed the constitution to enforce the will of GOP legislators. A third amendment, codifying a prohibition on denying rights based on race or ethnicity, passed with 72% support.
Now Republicans are seeing this as a winning strategy for policies they know won't make it past a Democratic governor, and they're lining up the amendments.
Two of five proposed amendments making their way through the chambers would send voters ideas Wolf has already rejected. One would require “government-issued identification” to vote, and another would require the state auditor general to review elections and voter rolls for accuracy, both reactions to the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was flawed, which has been proven false again and again.
Another proposed amendment would give a simple majority in the Legislature power to override executive orders and administrative regulations, continuing to whittle away powers from the executive branch.
Perhaps the amendment we really need is one that makes it more difficult to change the state constitution, forcing Republican lawmakers to either accept a veto or work with Democrats to find a solution that works for everyone.