Do Pa. lawmakers have the power to postpone April 28 primary?

With date set in law, legislation may be only option

  • Emily Previti
Now is a good time to find your computer and take the U.S. Census Bureau survey. Letters with instructions for the online version are already arriving; most households should get one by this weekend. I got mine last week and took care of it in two minutes (hard copy forms will be mailed in April to households that don’t respond online). FWIW, the Census help line (800-923-8282) is up and running (though it seems to be largely/exclusively automated). Gov. Tom Wolf, meanwhile, wants the Feds to extend the July 31 deadline for completing the census, a request made the same day Census officials announced they have suspended field operations for two weeks in response to the coronavirus outbreak. —Emily Previti, staff writer
Dan Mortimer, a custodian at Cornwell Elementary School in Bensalem Township, cleans doors leading into the polling place for two precincts during Tuesday’s special House district 18 election.

Emily Previti / PA Post

Dan Mortimer, a custodian at Cornwell Elementary School in Bensalem Township, cleans doors leading into the polling place for two precincts during Tuesday’s special House district 18 election. (Emily Previti / PA Post)

A relatively high number of voters came out Tuesday for special elections in three state House districts at both ends of the state: the 18th district (Bucks County), the 58th (Westmoreland) and the 8th (Butler and Mercer).

Election directors running the polls made good on their pledges to stock precincts with protective and sanitization supplies.

But COVID-19 concerns prompted some poll workers to stay home – half of those scheduled in Bucks, which had 12 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Wednesday night.

Early Wednesday, I published a story that looked at what the March 17 specials could bode for the April 28 primary. The upshot:

Workers from other precincts filled in, but they’ll be at their own for the presidential primary. Already, election workers and voting venues statewide are saying they won’t participate at the polls April 28.

Increasingly, Pennsylvania election directors say they’d prefer using only mailed ballots.

They’ve also been pressuring the Wolf administration to postpone the nominating contest — and to act soon.

Gov. Wolf’s said he won’t decide just yet.

But it’s not clear he alone can do so. Pa.’s election code doesn’t address who should reschedule elections in an emergency.

The courts have handled past emergency election rescheduling scenarios. But none of those cases involved a statewide election, says PittCyber’s Chris Deluzio, an attorney.

“I don’t think that process – giving implicit authority to courts – is sufficient,” Deluzio told me Wednesday. He says the election code needs “to clearly state criteria for an emergency and who has power” in that situation with respect to elections.

He says those changes are critical because current law is so ambiguous and “confusion and lack of clarity can disenfranchise people.”

Deluzio also pointed me to the spot in the commonwealth’s election code that sets the date of the presidential primary as the fourth Tuesday in April.

So, will the legislature change that part of the law to facilitate moving it?

There seems to be support for it among lawmakers. The Pittsburgh-Post Gazette talked to some Western. Pa. reps who want to delay the primary and then proceed with a vote-by-mail election.

House State Government Committee Chairman Garth Everett, a Republican from Lycoming County, says lawmakers already are working on a bill to let counties start processing mailed and absentee ballots before polls close — a key step to let counties get a head start on the laborious process of scanning thousands of mailed-in ballots.

Absent anything else, “that’s something we gotta do,” Everett told me Wednesday.

The idea took hold before the coronavirus outbreak. Democratic State Rep. Kevin Boyle also introduced a measure to fund and facilitate mailing ballots to all Pennsylvania voters before social distancing directives applied statewide.

Everett says legislation could start moving before there’s a final decision on moving the April 28 primary. (And lawmakers could amend other election-related measures to address the primary without violating the legislature’s single subject rule).

“We might want to pass a bill that would just move the primary. Or we could pass legislation that would authorize the governor, if we’re still in disaster declaration … to, in consultation with the legislature, move the date,” he said. “It’s hard to tell from where we are sitting today what we want to do.”

Everett said his committee wouldn’t meet sooner than next week because the House is still ironing out the technical details for remote sessions authorized this week.

He also said state officials are in overdrive trying to manage the public health crisis – and while important, the primary date isn’t among the most pressing matters at the moment.

“Right now, we’re working through short-term issues and trying to think long-term at the same time,” Everett said.

In his view, Pa. “still has time” to figure out how to run its presidential primary amid a pandemic. But he says he’s committed to avoiding a scenario involving emergency disaster declarations along the lines of the “panic situation that Ohio” found itself in earlier this week. —Emily Previti

More coronavirus news

Tom Wolf

Gov. Tom Wolf

Gov. Tom Wolf delivers a video address from his home in York County on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. His remarks were simultaneously translated into American Sign Language by a state employee in Harrisburg.

  • Pennsylvania’s coronavirus count stands at 133, and the state’s first death from COVID-19 was recorded in Northampton County. News of the death prompted Gov. Tom Wolf to deliver an address to the state urging everyone to take the outbreak seriously and stay home as much as possible. Ed Mahon has the details.

  • Gov. Wolf did not identify the person who died of COVID-19, but The Morning Call spoke to a family member who did: “Carmine Fusco, 55, died Wednesday afternoon at St. Luke’s University Hospital in Fountain Hill, five days after his sister Rita Fusco-Jackson, also in her 50s, died from the virus in New Jersey. Five other family members have fallen ill, with several in critical condition, said Andriana Fusco, sister to Carmine and Rita.” The New York Times also reports on the family.

  • ErieYork and Lancaster counties reported their first positive test results.

  • PennLive’s Ivey DeJesus profiles Pa. Health Secretary Rachel Levine: “Medical professionals say her guidance of the Department of Health these last several weeks amid the coronavirus outbreak has been led with calm expertise – at times widely outpacing the efforts of the federal government.”

  • Penn State’s classes will stay online all semester, the nation’s largest public university system announced Wednesday. The same day, the University of Pennsylvania announced it would hold commencement virtually — the latest in a growing list of post-secondary institutions opting for online graduation ceremonies this year.

  • U.S. Rep. Matthew Cartwright announced he’s self-quarantining after learning a family friend tested positive for the coronavirus. Cartwright, a relatively conservative Democrat now in his fourth term, represents the NEPA counties of Wayne, Pike and Lackawanna, plus parts of Luzerne and Monroe.

  • PennDOT reopened some rest areas Wednesday after their closure prompted backlash from truck drivers, many of whom are transporting food and other essential items. The state will make sure there are portable toilets at the 13 reopened parking areas (the other 35 will remain closed). Non-commercial drivers can still get gas and access portable restrooms and convenience stores at 15 Turnpike service plazas along I-76, but that’s it — restrooms, restaurants and other indoor amenities are closed. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Joe DiStefano compiled this list of the open stops.

  • Giant announced it will limit essential items, such as toilet paper and cleaning supplies, to two per customer at its supermarkets as a way to curtail unnecessary hoarding. In doing so, Giant joined AldiWegmansWalmart, Kroger and other chain grocers who have rolled out the policy. Many chains are also designating seniors-only shopping times to help protect the population most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

  • So many people were trying to purchase firearms on Tuesday that Pennsylvania’s instant background check system was knocked offline a few times, Ed Mahon reports.

  • Don’t believe the rumors going around that ibuprofen is harmful if taken by someone infected with coronavirus. NBC News looks at the facts.

  • Shell on Wednesday halted construction of its new ethane cracker in Beaver County, following calls by elected officials to suspend operations after getting hundreds of complaints from workers about unsanitary, crowded conditions. About 8,000 people are working on the company’s petrochemical plant project. The closure likely is temporary and meant give plant officials time to implement more stringent precautions against the spread of COVID-19, from what a company spox told The Allegheny Front’s Reid Frazier.

Coronavirus Pessimism:

Coronavirus Optimism:

 

Editor’s note: This post was updated to clarify Giant’s shopping policy. 


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