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Voters Back Bid To Ban Race Discrimination In Constitution

Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA

Pennsylvania voters are backing a proposal to amend the state constitution to outlaw discrimination based on race and ethnicity, a question added to Tuesday’s primary ballot amid worries over whether federal judges appointed by former President Donald Trump will roll back civil rights protections.

The proposal had about 70% of the vote in support of it, with about 45% of precincts reporting.

The questionis believed to be the first time since last summer’s protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis that voters in any state have decided a racial equity issue on a statewide ballot.

Constitutional law professors say it will have little practical effect because courts already consider such discrimination to violate both the state and federal constitutions.

But state Sen. Vince Hughes, a Democrat in Philadelphia, said he sponsored the measure in case federal anti-discrimination case law is undercut by the Republican-majority U.S. Supreme Court or federal judges appointed by Trump.

It will become the state constitution’s fourth equality provision, added to “all men are born equally free and independent,” a protection from discrimination in exercising civil rights, and a 1971 amendment that ensures gender equality.

Meanwhile, two separate questions seek to limit a governor’s emergency disaster declarations and put more power in the hands of lawmakers.

Republican lawmakers across the country are reeling in emergency powers that governors wielded during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Pennsylvania is in the unique position of being the first to take the question to voters.

Pennsylvania's questions, penned by Republican lawmakers, ask voters to end a declaration after 21 days and to give lawmakers the sole authority to extend it or end it at any time with a simple majority vote.

Current law allows a governor to issue an emergency declaration for up to 90 days and extend it without limit. The constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote by lawmakers to end the declaration.

Results for these amendments were still being tabulated early Wednesday morning.

Wolf, a Democrat, and his emergency disaster director have called the proposals reckless, political and a threat to a functioning society if it prevents a fast and wide-ranging response to increasingly complicated disasters.

Republicans have accused Wolf of fear-mongering and said that the framers of the constitution never intended for a governor to hold so much power to suspend regulations, order mask-wearing and businesses and schools shut down.

The Legislature did not hold hearings on the measures, and they may end up in court if voters approve them because their effect is in dispute.

Republicans claim the governor cannot order shutdowns without a disaster emergency in effect. Wolf disagrees, saying a governor’s authority during a public health emergency rests on separate public health law and is unaffected by the ballot questions.