By Patrick Beaty
Article I of the Pennsylvania Constitution declares the basic rights of all citizens of the Commonwealth and in many ways defines the relationship between them and their elected representatives.
Among the rights reserved for the people themselves is “the inalienable and inalienable right to modify, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they see fit”. The sovereignty of the people to decide how they will be governed is a fundamental principle of a democratic society.
Now imagine a society in which the people have no ability to change or reform their government unless their elected representatives allow it.
Worse still, lawmakers from a single political party could control when and how the state constitution should be changed. Imagine if they could shift the balance of power between the three branches of government against the will of the governor and with the consent of only 13% of those registered to vote.
You don’t have to force yourself to imagine this scenario because it is already the sad reality in Pennsylvania. We saw it play out last year when Republican lawmakers realized they could use the Constitution to end Governor Wolf’s declaration of a pandemic emergency.
Pa. Republicans mull constitutional amendment to curb top health official, limit powers
And it looks like we haven’t seen the last one-party constitutional change. At least seven proposals — covering a range of issues from judicial elections to redistricting to abortion access — are vying for votes when the Senate and House return to session later this month- this. With many other actions pending in legislative committees.
How is it possible? What happened to the noble promise of our founding fathers that the people would retain control of our own democratic institutions? Turns out we gave the keys a while ago. And we have to start thinking about how we can get them back.
In the mid-19th century, Pennsylvania was one of many states looking for an easier way to make changes to their constitution without all the complexity, delay, and expense of calling a convention. of delegates. The 1837 Convention offered a solution to the problem, which became Article X of the 1838 Constitution and remains to this day the only way to amend the State Constitution without a convention.
The constitutional revisions were authorized through a quasi-legislative process that excludes the governor’s normal role in enacting laws, but requires an electoral referendum before the changes can take effect. Proposed amendments must pass twice in consecutive sessions of the General Assembly before being submitted to voters. The process has sometimes been described as long or lengthy, and it can take up to five years depending on when the bill comes to a vote in each chamber during each two-year session.
These constitutional amendments were aimed as much at the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania as Wolf | Bruce Ledewitz
But it can also be completed much faster, as happened with the amendment to limit a governor’s power to respond to emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
This constitutional change, which significantly altered the balance of power between the executive and the legislature, was accomplished in just eleven months from its introduction in June 2020 until its final approval by voters last May. To accomplish this feat, Republican lawmakers exploited two major loopholes in the constitutional amendment rules.
Because the Constitution only requires a simple majority in each legislative chamber, a party that controls both can do whatever it wants and certainly doesn’t have to seek bipartisan consensus. In most other states, it is not so easy for a political party to pass amendments to its constitution.
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According to Ballotpedia, Pennsylvania is among 17 states that only require a simple majority vote in each legislative chamber. Thirty-three states require a supermajority of 60% or more.
It also helped that the Constitution allowed voters to be asked the question in an off-year municipal primary election when turnout was low. Because barely a quarter of registered voters voted in that referendum, it took only 13% of the electorate to approve the change.
Yet the sponsors of these proposals still insist that they only want to “let the people decide”. Fair enough. We thought about it and here is what we decided.
If you can pass constitutional change with real bipartisan votes, we’d be happy to consider it. We would also like to have a chance to decide on some issues, such as removing our politician-controlled redistricting processes and replacing them with an independent redistricting commission.
What we do not want are more partisan constitutional amendments. On these we have already decided, and the answer is no.
Patrick Beaty is the volunteer Legislative Director of Fair Districts PA. His work appears frequently on Capital-Star’s comments page.