First Popular Referendum Against State Executive Overreach Succeeds

May 19, 2021, Harrisburg, Pa. — Voters in Pennsylvania have enacted two constitutional amendments that will limit a governor’s emergency powers in the first such popular referendum in the country, according to the Associated Press' Election Decision Editor. Eight other states have enacted similar measures increasing legislative oversight of an executive's emergency powers, according to Ballotpedia — all via legislative action. And more than 300 oversight bills have been proposed in 45 states so far.

Commonwealth Foundation President and CEO Charles Mitchell issued the following statement in reaction to Pennsylvania’s vote:

Today is a momentous day in the history of Pennsylvania and the United States. Voters have defended some of our most important founding principles, including the separation of powers between branches of government and the fundamental importance of each citizen’s liberty.

Fourteen months ago, governors across the country took unprecedented actions in their attempts to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Using the powers vested in them via the states’ respective emergency powers laws, many shut down businesses, schools, sporting events, even playgrounds and churches. While some took care to respect the civil rights of their citizens to the maximum extent possible, others saw their emergency powers laws as a vehicle for them to act in contradiction to their own state constitutions and the U.S. Constitution for as long as they’d like.

It is prudent to allow executives to act quickly and decisively in case of an emergency. However, the principles of representative self-government dictate that such decisive action cannot be maintained in perpetuity, without any valid check on executive power. Our state and federal governments must find ways to simultaneously protect the lives and livelihoods of the people while not violating our rights as free citizens.

In Federalist Paper No. 51, James Madison wrote: But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others…it may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.”

Two hundred and thirty-three years after Madison wrote that statement, voters in Pennsylvania reaffirmed its truth.

The two amendments will reduce the length of a governor’s emergency proclamations from 90 days to 21 days as well as require that the General Assembly approve of an extension beyond three weeks. Additionally, the General Assembly now has the power to end a state of emergency by a majority vote.

Commonwealth Foundation experts are available for comment. Please contact Michael Torres 850-619-2737 or [email protected] to schedule an interview.

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