ORDINARILY THE swearing-in of elected lawmakers in Pennsylvania’s state House is a formality. Pictures are taken. There is lots of smiling and shaking of hands. This year was different. A brawl nearly erupted when Jake Corman, the Republican president pro tempore of the state Senate, refused to swear in Jim Brewster, a Democrat who had just been re-elected. John Fetterman, the Democratic lieutenant-governor and Senate president, objected to the refusal. The Senate Republicans then voted to remove Mr Fetterman, who was presiding over the session, and replaced him with Mr Corman. In footage of the vote Mr Fetterman sounded incredulous and then irate. At first, he refused to give up his gavel. At one point both men attempted to recognise motions from the floor. Mr Fetterman called this “a fundamental assault on democracy”, where the people’s will and the courts were ignored because one party did not like the result. Tom Wolf, the (Democratic) governor, described it as a “shameful power grab”.
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Only 69 votes separated Mr Brewster from Nicole Ziccarelli, his Republican rival. His district spans two counties. Each county counted mail-in-ballots a little differently, with one allowing undated ballots and the other not. Ms Ziccarelli challenged these ballots. Pennsylvania’s supreme court allowed the disputed votes to be counted and the state’s secretary of state certified the results. This did not satisfy the Republicans, who continued to challenge the votes in federal court. When a federal judge upheld the state court’s decision, Ms Ziccarelli dropped her suit and Mr Brewster was at last sworn in on January 13th. “I hate to say this, being a political conservative,” says Joseph DiSarro, a political scientist at Washington & Jefferson College, “but we may have to federalise elections and the rules…take it out of the hands of the states.”
The ruckus on the state Senate floor highlights how bitter state politics has become. Two proposed amendments to the state constitution will add to that bitterness. Republican legislators want to change the way the state judiciary is elected. Some have proposed that judges on the state’s highest courts—the supreme court, commonwealth court and superior court—should be elected in regional districts created by the General Assembly (that is, the legislature). Democrats call this judicial gerrymandering. The districts could be drawn to ensure one party controls a majority of the court seats. This idea has been floating around for several decades, but the recent court decisions related to state and federal election results, which found in favour of Democrats, have given the proposal momentum. Furthermore most of the judges are from in and around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, so the more rural parts of the state are not being represented, according to the bill’s proponents.
The second proposed amendment would curb the power of the governor, in a way that is reminiscent of how Wisconsin Republicans curtailed the Democratic governor’s power in 2018. The Pennsylvania bill would reduce the governor’s emergency declarations to 21 days from 90 days. Charlie Gerow of Quantum Communications, a Republican political consultancy, says this amendment, in effect, is a referendum on the performance of Mr Wolf. Republicans have called his pandemic shutdowns, as well as a dozen opioid-related emergency declarations, an overreach (though without the shutdowns, the state might have lost even more people than the 19,400 who have died of covid-19).
Mr Fetterman compares what is happening in Pennsylvania to American football. “It would be like if the Steelers lose a game, and then they try to change how many points a touchdown is [six points]. Well, we lost by a touchdown, so we’re gonna change the rules. So now a touchdown is worth only four points.”■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “The four-point touchdown”