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Independents can vote on ballot questions, and more things to know about the May 18 primary

Spotlight PA answers your questions about controversial constitutional amendments, judicial races, and more.

  • Sarah Anne Hughes/Spotlight PA
The state’s 67 counties will work into next year to tally up election expenses for 2020, the first year Pennsylvania implemented no-excuse mail voting.

 Robert Frank / For Spotlight PA

The state’s 67 counties will work into next year to tally up election expenses for 2020, the first year Pennsylvania implemented no-excuse mail voting.

Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters.

(Harrisburg) — There’s just one week until the May 18 primary election in Pennsylvania.

All voters, regardless of affiliation, will be asked to weigh in on four ballot questions, including two proposed constitutional amendments that could significantly shape Pennsylvania’s future response to disasters like the coronavirus pandemic.

Democrats and Republicans, meanwhile, have a number of judicial and municipal races to consider.

Below, Spotlight PA answers some of the most frequently asked questions about voting and what Pennsylvanians will see on their ballot. You can learn more by watching our recent live event on the ballot questions and judicial races with WHYY’s Katie Meyer.

Can I vote this May?

If you are a registered voter, the answer is yes — though exactly what you can vote on depends on your affiliation.

Pennsylvania has a closed-primary system, meaning only Democrats and Republicans determine the candidates for office during these spring elections.

But people who don’t belong to the two major parties can vote on ballot questions.

There will be four such questions on the May 18 primary ballot: three proposed constitutional amendments and one statewide referendum. (That doesn’t include local initiatives, including ones in Allegheny County and Philadelphia.)

Just for good measure, here’s that information again, from Pennsylvania’s top election official.

“Pennsylvania’s primaries are usually limited to Democratic and Republican voters, who are choosing their parties’ nominees,” Acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid said in a statement. “But this year’s primary ballot will include four important ballot questions. That means every registered voter can vote on those ballot questions in this primary, even if they are registered with a third party or no party at all.”

Non-affiliated and minor-party voters can also cast a ballot in special elections that are held at the same time as the primary. That’s the case in two state Senate and two state House districts this May. (Unsure which districts you live in? There’s a tool for that.)

Commonwealth Media Services

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf speaking with the press during a visit to a drive-thru mass vaccination clinic for Dauphin County residents at Harrisburg Area Community College on March 30.

Which of the ballot questions are controversial, and why?

Objections to three of the four questions have emerged in recent weeks: two proposed constitutional amendments that would transfer executive power to the legislature in the case of disaster declarations, and another that would enshrine protections based on race and ethnicity in the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Spotlight PA covered the four questions in detail here.

What percentage of ballot questions are usually approved?

Since the 1990s, voters have approved 100% of ballot questions. If you go back to the 1960s — the time of Pennsylvania’s last constitutional convention — just two have failed to pass.

What’s behind these successes? In some cases, ballot language, as Spotlight PA previously reported.

Which judicial races will be on the ballot? Which courts are responsible for which rulings? Which courts set cash bail?

Democrats and Republicans will be asked to vote on a number of judicial races, including those for Pennsylvania’s three statewide appellate courts: Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth.

Commonwealth Court handles new civil cases as well as actions brought against state agencies, while Superior Court hears criminal and civil appeals from the county courts.

The state Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of legal disputes, and in the past year has handed down highly consequential election and pandemic decisions. The justices in 2018 also threw out the state’s congressional map, finding it was drawn unfairly to benefit Republicans.

WESA, WITF, and WHYY have a great guide to the parties’ candidates.

Depending on where they live, Democrats and Republicans may also be asked to vote on candidates for Court of Common Pleas, municipal court, or district magisterial court.

It’s Pennsylvania’s 512 local magistrates who set cash bail and preside over the kinds of disputes many of us might encounter someday, like a small-claims dispute with a home contractor, a traffic offense, a violation of a local ordinance, or a disagreement with a landlord. (On evictions, they have significant discretion over who should be protected from being forced from their home and who shouldn’t.)

District judges must run for reelection every six years, and not every voter will be asked to weigh in during this election cycle. So is your local magistrate on the ballot? It’s a basic question that, depending on where you live, can be surprisingly tough to answer.

The first barrier is finding out who your magistrate is. Pennsylvania’s central court system maintains a list of all magistrates by county and district (Philadelphia uses a different system and is excluded). Figuring out which district you live in can be a challenge. For example, it’s easy in Lehigh County, which has a lookup tool, but tougher in Lancaster County, which only publishes a static map.

The best place to look for that information is your county government’s website. Then, visit your county’s election division for a list of candidates or sample ballot to see if your district judge is up for reelection.

Investigating an incumbent or challenger’s qualifications is also difficult. They aren’t evaluated or given a rating by the Pennsylvania Bar Association (it only reviews the qualifications of people running for appellate court seats). And local coverage of these races is spotty, at best.

That’s a significant lack of scrutiny for judges who make $93,338 a year, with the possibility of a pension and lifetime health care. As a Spotlight PA/PennLive investigation found, there are also huge variations in their workloads. In 2019, 10% of district judges had at least 60 days without court appearances, above and beyond holidays, weekends, and training days.

One measure you can consider for incumbents is how many days of the year they did (or didn’t) have court proceedings using this tool.

People lined up at the Jackson Township Municipal Building, start to enter the poll as it opens, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, Election Day, in Jackson Township, Pa.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

People lined up at the Jackson Township Municipal Building, start to enter the poll as it opens, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, Election Day, in Jackson Township, Pa.

How can I see specifically what is on the ballot for my district?

Some counties allow voters to look up a sample ballot ahead of Election Day. If that’s not an option in your area, use the League of Women Voters’ Vote411 tool for statewide races.

Is it too late to register to vote?

It is (the last day was May 3).

How about to request a mail ballot?

If you’re reading this before May 11 at 5 p.m., you’re in luck. If not, you’ll have to vote in person. Find your polling place here.


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