Pennsylvania primary: State House committee advances one bill to change the date, rejects another

By: - October 3, 2023 11:26 am

A sign directs voters in State College, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. (Capital-Star photo)

The Pennsylvania House’s State Government Committee on Tuesday voted to advance a bill, HB 1634, that would change Pennsylvania’s presidential primary to April 2, 2024.  

But in the same meeting, the committee voted against a bill approved by the state Senate on Sept. 20 by a vote of 47-2. That legislation, SB 224, would move the primary date to March 19. 

SB 224 was sponsored by state Sen. David Argall (R-Schuylkill); HB 1634 was co-sponsored by Reps. Malcolm Kenyatta and Jared Solomon, both Democrats representing Philadelphia.

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“People recognize that Pennsylvania is frankly the center of the political universe,” Kenyatta said Tuesday. “If you want to win a national election in the United States of America, you have to win the state of Pennsylvania and right now our presidential primary date not only conflicts with a major religious holiday, but additionally disadvantages the voters of the Commonwealth in terms of being able to weigh in in a substantive way throughout the presidential primary process.” 

April 23 is the date of the Passover holiday.

Kenyatta added that moving the primary from its current April 23 date to April 2 positions Pennsylvania to be part of a regional group of states holding primaries on that date, including  Arkansas, Delaware, Mississippi, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. He acknowledged concerns about how changing the date would affect county elections officials and the logistics involved in making a change with just over seven months before the primary.

“I know that we’ve all received feedback from our county commissioners about the impact of moving the primary,” Kenyatta said. “But I think pretty universally what has been shared by county commissioners is that April 2 is the least disruptive day on a list of options that will provide some tension for our county commissioners to effectively execute the election.” 

Solomon agreed that moving the date would let the commonwealth “show our political clout.” But he added more importantly, it would not deprive Jewish voters from voting in person on Election Day. 

“As someone who takes my faith very seriously. I was surprised that our current primary schedule would allow that our primary date falls on a really important holiday for a lot of Pennsylvanians, on Passover,” Solomon said.

Rep. Brad Roae of Crawford County, the committee’s Republican chair, urged members to vote against the bill, saying it was “unfair” to local county officials, and questioning the argument against holding an election on a religious holiday. 

“There was recently a special election in Allegheny County in the 21st State House District,” Roae said, “and I’m not familiar with the Hindu faith but September 19, is listed as a holiday for the Hindu faith. So I was just wondering, you know, the whole idea of you can’t have an election on a holiday, what with all the different religions that we all have Christianity, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, there’s so many different religions probably almost every day is a holiday for somebody in Pennsylvania.”

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Roae added that the state Constitution allows people to vote by absentee ballot if they’re observing a religious holiday. But Rep. Maureen Madden (D-Monroe) countered that Pennsylvania “would never, ever propose to have a primary election on Christmas” and that all voters should be able to vote in person if they want to.

Rep. Ben Waxman (D-Philadelphia) said in response to concerns about how local officials would handle a change: “if they can handle 2020, they can handle this. Passover shouldn’t be thrown aside as if it doesn’t matter.” 

The committee voted to advance HB 1634 by a vote of 13-12. 

The committee voted 7-to-18 against SB 224.

Rep. Louis Schmitt (R-Blair) said he didn’t speak out against HB 1634 so as not to appear partisan since it was a bill sponsored by Democrats, but spoke against SB 224.

In addition to creating confusion for voters and issues for county officials, Schmitt said that changing the date so late in the process would give fuel to conspiracy theorists who want to create chaos in election cycles. 

“Nowadays, unless our elections are perfect, somebody is going to claim that they’ve been stolen,” Schmitt said. “Others will take advantage of every single little hiccup in this election, it will be spread across social media to prove that the election was stolen, people will refuse to concede there will be more turmoil, more chaos, more death threats, more demonstrations against the people who have to run our elections and do such a wonderful job doing it.”

Schmitt added that his Altoona district has a significant Jewish population, and he has not heard from any of them about concerns that the primary falls on Passover. “Are we really going to change an election in a presidential election year, late in the year before?” he asked.

Rep. Melissa Shusterman (D-Chester) said that while it was likely bad actors would stoke chaos on social media around the election, lawmakers couldn’t necessarily prevent that. “Our job is not to be fearful but to lead Pennsylvania to a better place and to move this state forward,” she said. “With change comes discomfort. But Pennsylvania is going to continue to change, evolve and do things differently.”

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Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim Lyons is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications. Follow her on Threads @social_kimly