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Still Waiting For Results Of Pennsylvania Judicial Races, Ballot Questions

A voter enters a polling place at 23rd and Jackson streets in Philadelphia on May 18, 2021.
Kimberly Paynter
A voter enters a polling place at 23rd and Jackson streets in Philadelphia on May 18, 2021.

Early Wednesday morning, hours after polls closed in Tuesday’s primary election, some of the top statewide contests in Pennsylvania were still too close — and still had too many votes uncounted — to call.

Chiefly, two controversial ballot measures that would curtail a governor’s authority in emergency situations were teetering on thin margins.

And even as major down-ballot races were decided — including Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner cruising to a victory that will almost certainly get him a second term, and state Rep. Ed Gainey’s upset victory over Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto — a few statewide judicial races remained tight.

There were scattered issues with the voting process. The machines that slice open Philadelphia’s mail ballots malfunctioned, slowing down returns, for instance. Several York and Delaware county precincts ran out of ballots, Lancaster County was forced to count 15,000 ballots by hand due to a printing issue, and some Luzerne County voting machines showed a graphic for the wrong political party.

But Acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid said things had gone smoothly enough that she was canceling a planned 11 p.m. press conference.

The day’s election, she said, was “indeed successful” and there were “no widespread incidents to report.”

She noted that it doesn’t mean the process can’t be improved. State and county election officials have been pushing lawmakers to allow mail ballots to be processed ahead of Election Day to speed results and require less scrambling on the part of election workers.

Ballots are still being counted. The process will likely continue for at least another day, and some counties are on track to take even longer. But as of midnight Tuesday, here’s where the statewide contests stand.

The judicial races

Candidates for several open spots on the commonwealth’s three appellate courts were at the top of ballots across Pennsylvania.

Seats on the Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth courts are some of the most powerful in state government. Judges on all three are elected to 10-year terms, and can then be reelected in yes-or-no retention elections, which they almost never lose. Once a judge is on the bench, they generally stay there until they hit the mandatory retirement age of 75.

Going into this primary, there were three Republicans and one Democrat vying for a single open Supreme Court seat, one Republican and three Democrats in the running for a Superior Court seat, and two Republicans and four Democrats running for two Commonwealth Court seats.

While official results still aren’t in, Commonwealth Court Judge Kevin Brobson, who lives in the Harrisburg area, appears to have an insurmountable lead in the three-way race for the GOP nomination for Supreme Court.

Brobson has the state Republican Party’s nomination, and ahead of the primary had significantly more cash on hand than either of his opponents, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Paula Patrick or Pittsburgh-area Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough.

Whoever takes the GOP race will face Philadelphia’s Maria McLaughlin, the sole Democratic candidate on the ballot, in the Nov. 2 general election. She’s currently a Superior Court justice. Even if McLaughlin loses the general election to her eventual GOP challenger, it won’t change the balance of the court, which is currently made up of five Democrats and two Republicans. The best the GOP can hope for is to maintain that balance — the retiring justice this election is replacing was a Republican.

The Democratic Superior Court primary is closer. And unlike the Supreme race, the general election for the lower court will actually have a material effect on its partisan makeup. The current bench has seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and one vacancy.

At midnight, two of the Democratic candidates — Pittsburgh civil litigator Jill Beck and Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Timika Lane — were handily beating commercial lawyer Bryan Neft, of Mt. Lebanon. Lane had a narrow lead.

Whoever wins will face Megan Sullivan. The lone Republican in the race is based in Paoli, and was a Deputy Attorney General for the commonwealth.

In the Democratic primary race for two Commonwealth Court seats, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Lori Dumas, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David Spurgeon, and former Allegheny County Council member Amanda Green-Hawkins were all neck and neck, with a lead over Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Sierra Street.

There are two Republican candidates for the two seats, though one is a relatively rare judicial incumbent running in a partisan election. Drew Crompton, an attorney and former top Senate GOP aide, was appointed to the court by Gov. Tom Wolf to fill a vacancy in 2019. He now has to run for reelection to win a full 10-year term.

Republican Stacy Wallace, a Bradford attorney, is running for the second open seat.

The four ballot questions

Every registered voter in Pennsylvania had a chance to weigh in on four ballot questions: three constitutional amendments and a referendum.

Two are contentious. They would make it harder for a Pennsylvania governor to enact and maintain an emergency declaration, and as of midnight, “yes” votes for both of them were leading “no” votes by about 10 points.

Both amendments are the culmination of more than a year-long power struggle between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled state legislature. Specifically, one would allow state lawmakers to overturn a disaster declaration by majority vote and, according to the Attorney General’s office and Senate Republicans, leave a governor with no option to veto it. The other would limit future disaster declarations to 21 days. Pennsylvania law currently allows declarations to last up to 90 days at a time, an outlier compared to other states. The Wolf administration has extended the one dealing with COVID-19 four times since the pandemic began.

The other two amendments, in contrast, were on track to pass easily.

One would update the state constitution to specifically ban racial and ethnic discrimination. Both state and federal law already prohibit the practice in nearly every legal arena, but the Attorney General’s office described the measure as a failsafe against any future discriminatory state or federal laws.

The other is a referendum asking voters to allow the state’s 94 paid and volunteer/paid combination fire departments to apply for loans to help with equipment and apparatus purchases.

Constitutional amendments virtually always pass Pennsylvania’s statewide referendum votes. Since the 1960s, just two have failed.