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State Senate Passes Controversial Amendments to Constitution

HARRISBURG— January 12, 2023 — Just one week into the new legislative session, the Pennsylvania Senate has bundled together and approved nearly along party lines several proposed changes to the state Constitution. The Committee of Seventy is deeply concerned about this abuse of the constitutional amendment process and opposes this legislation.

The proliferation of constitutional amendments in recent years is a dangerous symptom of dysfunction in Harrisburg. The forced passage of such changes along partisan lines, without public hearings and in the middle of a gubernatorial transition, should set off alarms for any Pennsylvanian who cares about good government and the sanctity of our Constitution.

The Senate has already acted, but Seventy urges the House, with its thin and likely shifting margin between majority and minority parties, to not rush controversial and partisan amendments through its chamber. If it does, we will be urging voters across the Commonwealth to reject this bad policy and process.

Senate Bill 1, introduced by Sen. Dan Laughlin (R-Erie), passed 28 to 20 with only one Democrat joining the Republican caucus, includes the following proposed amendments:

  • Voter ID: Requiring that both in-person and mail-in voters have unexpired government-issued identification;

  • Regulatory Override: Authorizing the Legislature to block regulations issued by executive branch agencies with a simple majority; and

  • Statute of Limitations Extension: Allowing victims of childhood sexual abuse to seek legal redress for a period of two years.

After having been vigorously debated in numerous public hearings, the statute of limitations amendment finally garnered bipartisan support that warrants its advancement. But the amendments related to voter identification and legislative power over regulations have yet to be vetted properly through the regular legislative process. This is not the first time. Both were logrolled and then passed as part of a five-amendment package in late-night maneuvering in July 2022.

Voter ID Amendment Would Impose a Permanent and Restrictive Policy

Any voter identification policy should be designed to counter actual risks to election integrity without creating an unnecessary burden for voters—a test this amendment fails. Election officials and experts agree that in-person voter impersonation is exceedingly rare, negating the need for a strict policy administered at voting precincts (e.g., requiring government ID for every voter). Instances of mail-in voter fraud to date have also been very few, with violators caught and prosecuted.

An approved form of photo or non-photo ID is already required of a voter voting at their precinct for the first time, and mail-in ballot applicants must provide proof of identification (a condition carried over from the state’s 2012 voter ID law). But the amendment’s requirement that only unexpired, government-issued ID be accepted will significantly curtail the current ID options and compel many Pennsylanians to obtain a new ID card in order to vote. Even if such an ID is offered without a fee, traveling to a government office is not cost free, especially for certain demographics, including seniors.

Because voter ID is popular with the general public, reasonable adjustments could be considered that would minimize the risk of disenfranchisement but still require that a voter present approved ID on every trip to the polls. But such rules belong in the Election Code, not the Constitution.

Regulatory Override Amendment Upends Balance of Power

The ability to issue regulations is fundamental to the executive branch in performing its constitutional duty to carry out the law. Lowering the threshold for legislative disapproval of regulations should be approached with tremendous caution, especially in the current hyperpartisan environment. The dramatic shift in power from the executive branch to the Legislature contemplated by this amendment could politicize and disrupt numerous facets of daily life for Pennsylvanians, from their healthcare access to their businesses to their schools.

Concern about executive overreach through regulations should be focused on the rulemaking process with collaboration between the majority and minority parties to identify and address pain points. With thousands of rules in effect across scores of issue areas, we are confident that common ground can be found. Of course, bipartisan solutions made through statute (and superseding regulations) should also always be sought to improve the quality of life for Pennsylvanians—in one week, a new governor will have an opportunity to begin this work with this new Legislature.

The strain among all three branches of state government has worsened in recent years, thanks to numerous variables including an increasingly polarized and segregated partisan electorate. The COVID-19 pandemic supercharged these stressors. But partisan struggle is no reason to alter long-held checks and balances in government with far-reaching effects. The Committee of Seventy remains committed to pressing back against the misuse of the constitutional amendment process while seeking opportunities to encourage the bipartisanship and collaboration in government the Commonwealth needs.