State Sent. Judy Ward R-Blair speaks during a Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee hearing at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) Election 2020 Pennsylvania Review
State Sent. Judy Ward R-Blair speaks during a Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee hearing at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Under cover of darkness Thursday, Senate Republicans began their systematic dismantling of reproductive and voting rights, and the powers of the governor. Their efforts continued during waking hours Friday with the passing of a series of proposed constitutional amendments.

On Thursday, Republicans on the state Senate Rules Committee waited until their constituents were sleeping to pass a package of proposed constitutional amendments that would greatly restrict abortion access, voter rights, and the power of the governor’s office.

The Republican-majority committee did this by waving a rule banning votes after 11 p.m.

While the sun was up on Friday, the full Republican-majority Senate continued its attack on democracy by passing those proposed amendments via Senate Bill 106 by a 28-22 vote. It now goes to the House for consideration.

The proposed amendments would:

  • Add language to the Pennsylvania Constitution stating explicitly that the document does not guarantee any rights relating to abortion or public funding of abortions.
  • Allow the General Assembly to set up a system for the auditor general to conduct election audits.
  • Let lawmakers vote down regulations without facing a governor’s veto. 
  • Require voters to show ID at polling places.
  • Make the Lt. Gov an appointed, not elected, position.

The Democratic floor leader, Sen. Jay Costa (Allegheny), said he saw the abortion proposal as “designed to prevent abortions in this commonwealth” while Sen. Judy Ward (R-Blair), who proposed the amendment in January, said it would simply give the Legislature power to determine abortion law.

Signe Espinoza, executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, said this is another step in the process to an outright abortion ban in the commonwealth that will greatly affect the health and lives of women.

“Abortion bans are simply dangerous” Espinoza said. “They increase maternal mortality rates, which are already very high – particularly among mothers of color. Furthermore, these bans are never coupled with increased access to prenatal care, mandated paid parental leave, support for mothers or children, subsidies for child care, or any other measure that would improve the quality of life for those that are now forced to bear children.”

Abortion advocates took to social media to express their outrage over the Republicans’ actions.

Why a Constitutional Amendment?

Basically, because voters have the final say. A governor can’t veto a constitutional amendment. 

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto pen has repeatedly thwarted GOP efforts to restrict abortion access in the commonwealth. So state Republicans have been trying to do it instead via a constitutional amendment. 

A constitutional amendment has to pass both chambers — House and Senate — in consecutive two-year legislative sessions, then be advertised to the public before the next fall election. The amendments would then go before voters as separate ballot questions for the final say.

In an attempt to effectively bypass Wolf’s veto pen, Republicans are using their majority control to push forward not just the constitutional amendment on abortion, but the amendments on voter rights, the power of the governor’s office, and the appointment of the Lt. Gov. 

In a post on Twitter, Costa said “the constitution is meant to protect the liberties and rights of Pennsylvanians, not to be used as a tool to enshrine prohibiting rights.”

With the US Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade last month, the federal protection of abortion rights that had been in place nearly 50 years no longer exists. The decision on abortion is now left with the states.

Factor that with the potential of Republicans maintaining their control of the state Legislature, and/or anti-abortion extremist, Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin) beating Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro in the governor’s race, and there is a legitimate possibility of abortion being severely restricted if not banned altogether in Pennsylvania.

“Senate Republicans are once again attempting to bypass the veto pen,” Sen. Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny) said. “This isn’t the first time they’ve tried to legislate through a constitutional amendment, but it is the first time they’ve tried to remove your rights through this process.”

What Happens Now?

The best chance now of the amendments not making it to a ballot would be if Democrats took over the majority in either chamber in November’s election. With all 203 of the state’s House seats and half of the Senate seats up for re-election, it’s all tall order.

Since Pennsylvania’s current constitution went into effect in 1968, voters have rejected only six of 49 proposed amendments that made it to the ballot. Only 14 of those appeared during presidential or gubernatorial election years, races that typically have higher turnouts.

Since the latest two-year session began in January 2021, Democratic and Republican legislators have proposed more than 70 changes to the state constitution.