Commentary

Cutler’s power-grab on special elections disenfranchises W. Pa. voters. Here’s why | Marc Stier

The GOP wants to cling to the majority as long as it can to ram through a constitutional amendment attacking abortion rights

House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler speaks to reporters on the House floor Monday, 12/12/2022 in a screen shot from video provided by the House Republican Caucus.

By Marc Stier

House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler, of Lancaster County, last week called for special elections on the May primary to fill the seats of state Reps. Austin Davis and Summer Lee, both Democrats of Allegheny County. The former is the commonwealth’s lieutenant governor-elect, while the latter was elected to represent western Pennsylvania’s redrawn 12th Congressional District.

First, the authority to set these special elections is being disputed. Second, delaying the special elections for as long as possible is another case of politicians trying to usurp the choices of votersVoters decide who has power in Harrisburg, not the elected officials. 

There is no reason, except political opportunism on the part of the House Republicans, to delay these special elections so long. Both  Cutler and House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, of Philadelphia, have identified Feb. 7 as a reasonable date to hold the election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Rep. Anthony Deluca, D-Allegheny, in October. 

Indeed, there is no good reason not to hold the special election for the seats of Davis and Lee  at the same time. Allegheny County election officials are already preparing for one special election and have said that they can hold special elections for the other two districts concurrently.

And there is a very good reason to hold them as soon as possible. The voters in the three districts have the right to be represented and the people of Pennsylvania have the right to have a full contingent of legislators in place, particularly since the business of the House will be hampered until the seats are filled by people chosen by the voters.  So there is some urgency to hold special elections as soon as reasonably possible. 

The fight over control of the Pa. House is Harrisburg high-stakes lunacy at its worst

The sole reason for the delay proposed by Representative Cutler is political game playing. By delaying the election, he hopes to keep the Republicans in control of the House as long as possible. And it is clear that his extremist caucus hopes to use that opportunity to take a second vote on constitutional amendments in the omnibus package known as SB106 on the ballot in the May primary. Those constitutional amendments include proposals to:

  • Extirpate any right to abortion in the Pennsylvania Constitution;
  • Require voters to show a state-issued voter identification card at every election both when voting in person and by mail;
  • Override the separation of powers and expand the power of the General Assembly by giving it the authority to reject regulations proposed by the governor or department heads; and

Adds a potentially fraught “election audit” power to the Auditor General’s office– at the direction of the General Assembly. 

The Pennsylvania Constitution wisely requires the General Assembly to pass constitutional amendments twice, with an intervening election, so that the voters can decide whether to return to power legislators who supported those amendments.

There is no question that the voters of Pennsylvania decisively rejected the policy ideas contained in these constitutional amendments.

House Republicans call for special elections in Democratic strongholds on primary day

In elections for governor, U.S. Senate, and all 203 seats in the House and half the 50-member state Senate, the voters had an opportunity to support candidates who want to ban abortion, continue spreading the Big Lie about the 2020 election, make voting more difficult, and embrace the Republican agenda to expand the power of the General Assembly while weakening the governor and the courts. They overwhelmingly rejected those choices in every case.

The effort to delay special elections thus thwarts the will of the people twice. A majority of Pennsylvanians in a majority of House districts (and statewide in competitive races) chose Democrats. It is clear that Democrats will hold the majority in the House when the special elections are completed. Delaying the special elections delays the time in which the will of the people is recognized.

And delaying the special elections thwarts the clearly expressed opposition of the people to the amendments in SB106. 

The action Representative Cutler has taken is thus shameful and quite likely unconstitutional.   Sadly, we know that too many Republicans are not deterred by the shamefulness of their actions. 

Marc Stier is the director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a progressive think-tank in Harrisburg. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. 

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.

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