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Special elections to fill Pa. House seats vacated by Democrats should be held Feb. 7, court rules

Democrats and Republicans have been at odds in recent weeks over which party had the authority to schedule three special elections for the chamber.

Pennsylvania State Rep and Democratic Leader Joanna E. McClinton speaks in front of Reading City Hall. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle)

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Special elections to fill Pennsylvania House seats vacated by Democrats should be held on Feb. 7, Commonwealth Court has ruled. 

Democratic and Republican leaders from the lower chamber had both claimed they had the authority to schedule three critical special elections in Allegheny County. The outcome of those races will likely determine which party holds the majority in the state House, which is currently at a standstill because of the ongoing power struggle. 

The parties had previously agreed to hold one special election, to replace the late state Rep. Tony Deluca, on Feb. 7, but were at loggerheads on two others.

On Friday, a three-judge panel ruled in favor of Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton’s preference to hold all three elections on that date. Republicans had requested that two of the elections be held in the May primary.

It was not immediately clear whether Republicans would appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court. Jason Gottesman, a spokesperson for state House Republicans, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

“Today’s decision is good news for the nearly 200,000 Allegheny County residents currently without representation in the state House,” a spokesperson for the state House Democratic caucus said in a statement. “Now county elections officials can proceed to print ballots and make final preparations for special elections in the 32nd, 34th, and 35th legislative districts on February 7.”

A spokesperson for the Allegheny County Elections Division did not immediately respond to a request for comment. According to the Associated Press, a lawyer for the county said Wednesday that voting machines had been tested and precincts had been secured for the elections. Ballots had not yet been printed nor had mail ballots been sent out as of Wednesday.

In November, Democrats won 102 out of 203 seats in the lower chamber — on paper, a one-vote majority. However, DeLuca died shortly before Election Day, and two other winning Democrats resigned in December to take higher office. 

Those vacancies left Democrats at a three-vote disadvantage to Republicans and set the stage for a contentious beginning to the two-year legislative session in early January. 

In the lead-up to the beginning of the session, Democratic and Republican leaders unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a power-sharing agreement. 

After talks failed, McClinton had herself sworn in early and claimed Democrats’ 102 wins gave her the authority to schedule the elections for Feb. 7. 

While still serving as state House speaker in November, Republican Bryan Cutler set the date for DeLuca’s special election for Feb. 7. A few days after McClinton’s actions — which Republicans called a “paperwork insurrection” — Cutler had himself sworn in and scheduled the other two elections for the May primary. He claimed doing so would reduce confusion and costs for Allegheny County.

Cutler then filed a lawsuit that asked the state’s appellate courts to reject McClinton’s election dates and honor his authority to set the dates.

As the court case played out, state House lawmakers met in Harrisburg on Jan. 3 to elect a speaker. The speaker moderates floor debate, calls up bills for votes, and names the chamber’s committee chairs. They also have the power to set the dates for special elections. 

Democrats did not have the votes to elect their pick for speaker, McClinton, so they moved to adjourn the chamber. The proposal failed by one vote, and was followed by the surprise nomination of state Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks).

Rozzi’s nomination had been engineered behind the scenes by state House Republicans, who said they expected Rozzi to drop his Democratic affiliation and become an independent. The move would likely deny Democrats the majority in the chamber even after the special elections take place.

But in the days since his surprise win, Rozzi has not spoken to reporters or answered questions about whether he plans to give up his Democratic registration. A close Republican ally of Rozzi’s said the speaker told him privately he was “only thinking about switching.” 

In the midst of this uncertainty, Democrats and Republicans have failed to agree on the basic rules needed to govern the chamber and advance any legislation. That includes a proposed constitutional amendment to open a two-year window in which survivors of childhood sexual abuse could sue their abusers and the institutions that covered up the crime.

Rozzi has convened a working group of three Democrats and three Republicans to work on said rules. The group is set to meet for the first time Tuesday.

Carter Walker is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with Spotlight PA. Contact Carter at cwalker@votebeat.org.

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