Two hundred thirty-four years ago in the month of May in the state of Pennsylvania, a few dozen concerned Americans were sent by their respective state legislatures to the old Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) in Philadelphia to try to save the young republic of the United States, which was struggling to govern itself under a loosely connected set of laws known as the Articles of Confederation.
Intending at first to amend the Articles rather than scrap them in favor of a new government, the gathering was originally called the Philadelphia Convention. It was only after two major proponents of federalism, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, convinced most of the attendees — not least of whom was elder statesman Benjamin Franklin — to begin anew that it henceforth became known as the Constitutional Convention.
Four months after commencing, it produced what is now the world’s second-oldest (San Marino’s is the first) current government charter.
Over two centuries later, on another day in May, it was Pennsylvanians who blazed the trail again, this time 107 miles west of the original locale: The Keystone State became the first in the Union to curb its executive branch’s emergency powers.
The governor is now limited to issuing a disaster declaration of no more than 21 days, down significantly from 90, extensions may be granted by the legislature, not the governor, and ending the declaration prematurely now only requires a simple majority legislative vote, as opposed to two-thirds.
This political game-changer is by no means limited to Pennsylvania; rather, it’s the first of numerous anticipated legislative revolutions. On May 19, the day after the vote, Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel described it as “a clear sign of accountability coming in 2022.”
On first impression, it might seem peculiar why there’s so much fuss about emergency measures because emergencies, after all, are not everyday occurrences. Prior to COVID, the last time a pandemic had such colossal global implications was the Spanish flu, a hundred years ago.
Yet America and the world are only now beginning to emerge from Covid’s psychological trauma, and there’s not much peace of mind that we won’t suffer through another pandemic within the next decade, let alone in our entire lives.
That’s why Pennsylvanians — and soon enough their counterparts in several other states — have reason to cheer about laws that diminish the ability of overactive governors to impose mass lockdowns and otherwise illogical social distancing measures.
Beyond pandemics, however, there’s even more reason to cheer. Transformational breakthroughs such as Pennsylvania’s May 18 vote effectively reduce the executive branch’s unilateral measures that can affect voting — such as by extending mail-in ballots’ due dates, installing ballot drop-off boxes in cherrypicked neighborhoods and even making housecalls to deliver ballots, help voters complete them and hand them to the local election office.
Those types of processes were forced upon Pennsylvanians in 2020 despite strong opposition from a majority of their legislators (a two-thirds supermajority was required at the time), as well as Americans in many other states, all in the name of COVID.
People are afraid to vote in person lest they contract COVID, the reasoning went, so let’s bring the voting to them. That sounds like a neat idea in theory, but is dubious in practice because it’s easy to make voting far easier predominantly for those more likely to vote for a particular candidate.
Did we really have enough quality control measures in place to ensure that Biden supporters collecting sealed ballots from their neighbors’ homes wouldn’t throw ones retrieved from houses with Trump signs on the front lawn into the dumpster?
Were drop-off boxes placed disproportionately in urban neighborhoods because they’re most useful in densely populated areas or because those are Democratic strongholds?
In the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden attained almost 7 million more votes than Donald Trump and cruised to a 306-232 electoral near-landslide. That disparity is so large that it’s highly unlikely the election outcome would have been different even if overly intrusive governors hadn’t given Biden an extra boost.
But who’s to say executive interference wouldn’t decide a tight congressional race in 2022 — or the presidency in 2024?
Thank you, Pennsylvania, for leading the way yet again.
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