It’s been a busy summer. From the overturning of Roe v. Wade to the ongoing and rising threats to our democracy, there is a lot to keep up with, and it is no doubt exhausting.
But we have to remain vigilant in defending our civil rights and liberties. That’s why I wanted to make sure that you saw what happened in the Pennsylvania Legislature in July. Every Pennsylvanian who cares about protecting our rights needs to be ready for a big fight.
Here’s what happened.
On July 7 –seven days after the deadline for passing the annual state budget– Republicans in the state Senate made a motion to waive the rule barring votes after 11 p.m. They had a plan. The midnight raid on our state constitution was about to begin.
(Fun fact: That rule exists because in 2005 –on July 7, no less– the legislature passed a pay raise for themselves at 2 a.m. Pennsylvanians weren’t thrilled about lawmakers passing controversial legislation in the wee hours of the night.)
Nearing midnight on July 7 of this year, Republican state senators voted to add an anti-abortion amendment to a bill with four other proposed constitutional amendments. The next morning, on July 8, the Senate passed the bill and began the process of amending the Pennsylvania Constitution.
The next day, all Republicans, save four, and one Democrat in the state House approved the amendments that had been passed by the Senate.
A constitution should be a document for protecting and expanding our rights, not restricting them. If the efforts of these far-right Republicans succeed, the state constitution will be amended to steal our rights and concentrate power in the legislature.
First, the state constitutional right to an abortion in Pennsylvania will be gone. That will set the stage for the same radical right-wing lawmakers to move ahead with legislation to ban abortion in the commonwealth. The amendment would also ban any state funding for abortion care.
A second amendment introduced in the midnight raid will require voter ID in Pennsylvania, disenfranchising an untold number of Pennsylvanians and disproportionately impacting voters of color and voters in low-income communities. It requires all voters in all elections to show unexpired, government-issued identification. Years ago, we proved in court that hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians don’t have and often cannot get identification required by such a strict mandate.
A third amendment continues the Republican-led attack on voting rights by taking the power to audit elections and election results from each of Pennsylvania’s 67 county election offices and giving it to the state auditor general, an elected office with no expertise in auditing elections or resources to conduct them.
Yet another amendment will upset the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches by allowing the state legislature to reject any executive-level agency regulation by simple majority. This could effectively throw state agencies into disarray, subjecting them to politicized regulatory overreach by a branch that is not responsible for their oversight.
Finally, candidates for lieutenant governor would no longer be independently elected by voters, but rather selected by political parties and their gubernatorial candidates.
If alarm bells are going off in your head, they should be. The midnight raid on our state constitution is unprecedented and, if it succeeds, would be a disaster for Pennsylvania.
Fortunately, we have time to fight back. When the legislature approved these amendments, that was only the start of the process, not the ending.
For the midnight raid on our rights to actually amend the Pennsylvania Constitution, they must pass identical amendments in two consecutive sessions of the legislature. That means the Republicans who passed these amendments have to do it all over again next year. And this time, they won’t be able to sneak them through in the dead of night; we’ll be watching.
The final step in amending the state constitution is a voter referendum, since, conveniently, amending the constitution is the only way legislators can avoid the governor’s veto. The amendments passed in the midnight raid on our rights could be presented to voters as a series of ballot questions as soon as the May 2023 primary.
It’s a tight timeline, and it means we have to start to fight back now to prevent these amendments from ever making it to the ballot. You may care more about one or two of these amendments more than others; but rest assured, this is a playbook. Each amendment poses a unique threat — to your rights and to the balance of power that keeps our democratic institutions healthy and in check. And instead of doing their jobs, they’ve decided to legislate by constitutional amendment and bypass the governor, attempting to impose laws they’ve failed to enact by legislation.
If you are an active ACLU member, we need you in this fight. If you are a seasoned activist who might be starting to feel a bit weary about the political landscape (trust me, you’re not alone in feeling that way), we need you to dig in and stay in this fight. If you’re new to politics and hoping to make Pennsylvania and our nation a better place, we need you in this fight. If you’ve never been politically active but feel compelled to do something in the face of this madness, we need you in this fight.
This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for the commonwealth. If you’re reading this, we need you in this fight.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania is working with a number of allies to stop these amendments and will soon have a toolbox of resources to help Pennsylvanians take action. You can also join the ACLU-PA Advocate Academy to build your advocacy skills and stay up to date on key bills we’re tracking in the legislature, including the constitutional amendments.
In the meantime, make sure your friends, family, neighbors, and anyone else you meet knows what’s at stake here. Ask them to join this fight; we need them in this fight too. Because it won’t be easy. But only if we work together to defend our civil rights and liberties and thwart efforts to undermine democracy do we have a chance to beat back the midnight raid on our constitutional rights by far-right Republicans. Get ready.