January 30, 2021
Judicial gerrymandering: No news is good news (for now)

This week’s good news about the proposed PA Constitutional amendment to elect appellate-court judges and justices in districts was that there wasn’t any news about it. Strong pushback from an unusually wide range of organizations and interests including both business and organized labor has stalled the proposal (HB 38) in the House. Voters won’t see a ballot question on the amendment during the May 18 primary, but there’s plenty of time to put it on the November general election ballot when turnout will be lowest. Good government advocates and local media are continuing to hammer away in the meantime; see the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Allentown’s Morning Call, and Washington, PA’s Observer-Reporter.
  • Why is it a bad idea? Spotlight PA examined the records in the two states that currently hold partisan judicial elections by district—IL and LA—and found that it has “increased partisan campaign fights and given special interests and dark money groups more of a foothold to affect the outcome of races.”
  • And another reason: In an Inquirer op-ed, former PA Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille (R) and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts chair Robert Heim recall a property-tax case that would have been open to conflicting regional pressures had the justices been answerable only to voters and donors in their districts. Their suggested solution: Scrap judicial elections altogether and replace them with merit selection.
But look for other Constitutional amendments on your May ballot

You could see three amendments on your ballot. Two of those have solid bipartisan support—one would enable gubernatorial candidates to pick their running mates, not the voters; the other would open a two-year window for lawsuits to victims of child sex abuse whose cases have passed the statute of limitations. But the third, which would rein in the governor’s emergency powers, is the product of the GOP’s disapproval Gov. Wolf’s approach to the pandemic. Not surprisingly, it is strongly opposed by most Democrats. It’ll be up to the voters to be the referees.
Election dissection begins online

Pennsylvania’s Election Law Advisory Board (ELAB) held its first meeting via Zoom Thursday, an hourlong introductory session at which Commissioner Ken Lawrence (D-Montco) was elected chair and Commissioner Joe Krantz (R-Snyder), vice-chair. Unlike the PA Senate election-review panel and the hearings being held in the House, both hurriedly set up by Republicans in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, the Advisory Board was created in March 2020 as part of the legislation that moved the presidential primary fro April to June. The 23-member panel’s first meeting was collegial, with quick consensus building around a “nuts and bolts review” of Pennsylvania’s 1937 Election Code and other election-related issues. The Board’s first annual report is due June 30.
  • No time to waste: “Election directors and counties need relief now,” said C70 policy director and ELAB member Patrick Christmas. “The inability to process mail-in ballots before Election Day, on its own, causes all sorts of problems. I’m optimistic this board can help the Legislature focus on the most pressing issues.”
  • Election hearings are coming: The PLS Reporter’s Right 2 Know podcast breaks down last week’s House State Government Committee hearing looking at the administration of the 2020 general election.
City Council: Building a New Police Oversight Board

Back in session following its holiday break, City Council will begin to set the parameters for the Police Oversight Board, which voters overwhelmingly approved in November. Our advice: Give it resources and teeth—especially in light of the Controller Rebecca Rhynhart’s highly critical assessment of the Police Department’s handling of last summer’s protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. As we said in testimony submitted to Council last June: The board “must be guaranteed full political independence, adequate resources, and the authority necessary to work with, and act as a robust check against, a city agency with 7,300+ employees and $750-million budget.”
  • What else to watch for from Council: The Inquirer will be looking at how Council deals with the city’s budgetary woes, what Council’s progressives will prioritize (and how they’ll do it) and how the body deals with calls to “defund the police”all as up to six members jockey for 2023 mayoral positioning.
Caught our eye
Young people want checks on tech (Chart: Axios)
On our radar
Tuesday’s budget address will be virtual: Gov. Wolf will prerecord his annual budget address instead of delivering it in the House chamber, but the deadline for completing the state budget remains the same: June 30.
Urge to merge: PA House Republicans want to consolidate eight state agencies into four. Gov. Wolf, who has proposed streamlining measures of his own while in office, has not signed on.
The enduring allure of conspiracies: Conspiracy theories seem to meet psychological needs and can be almost impossible to eradicate, according to a Knowable Magazine report. One remedy: Keep them from taking root in the first place.
GoVo: Philly tech entrepreneur Joshua Scott has developed an app (GoVo) that outlines political candidates’ policy positions, voting histories, donors and potential conflicts of interest, Technical.ly reports.
More Census delays: The Census Bureau now plans to release data April 30—and data needed for redistricting by July 30. That would impact state deadlines for redrawing district lines (a particular problem for NJ and VA, which will hold state-legislative elections in 2021).
Gerrymandering: The next big political war: With the Census results due soon, Axios explores the U.S. redistricting landscape.
Ranked-choice voting update: With RCV set to make its New York City debut in a special election for a Queens City Council seat Tuesday, The Fulcrum charts the movement’s progress around the county.
Get involved
Breakfast Brief on Ranked Choice Voting
Mon., Feb. 1 9-9:45 am

As New York City prepares to roll out ranked-choice voting in 2021 municipal elections, Citizens Union presents this briefing session to explain RCV and how it’ll work in the Big Apple. Speakers include WNYC radio editor-in-chief Ashley Cooper; Lurie Daniel-Favors, the interim executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at CUNY’s Medgar Evers College; and Rose Pierre-Louis, COO at NYU’s McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research. Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max is the moderator. RSVP.

So You Want to Be a Poll Worker Virtual Info Session
Wed., Feb. 3 6:30-7:30pm

For PA residents: If you jumped in to help work the polls in 2020, or didn’t get the chance, learn how to get involved in 2021 and beyond! We’ll cover what it takes to be a poll worker, and everything you need to know to run for a spot on the Election Board in May. Co-sponsored by the Committee of Seventy, Fairmount Votes, The League of Women Voters of Philadelphia, Philly Youth Vote and Young Involved Philadelphia. RSVP.

Time for the Truth About Pennsylvania’s Presidential Election
Thurs., Feb. 4, 7-8pm
Facebook Live

The University of Pittsburgh’s Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law and Public Policy presents a discussion of how the manufactured controversies surrounding PA’s 2019 election-reform law and untrue claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. C70 CEO David Thornburgh is the featured speaker. Cosponsors are the Committee of Seventy, the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh, Pitt Cyber: Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security, the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and the University of Pittsburgh Honors College. RSVP.

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