Pennsylvania Senate Committee Passes Measure Aimed at Improving Transparency in the State’s Campaign Finance Laws


A measure to guarantee that all political campaigns report their fundraising and expenditures online passed the Pennsylvania Senate State Government Committee on Tuesday, along with several other election reforms.

All Pennsylvania candidates who raise or spend more than nominal amounts of money for their campaigns must establish fundraising committees, and those that have done so must file campaign finance reports periodically. At least 32 states presently demand that all candidates who fundraise must report their finances online. In Pennsylvania, candidates for state office must submit online filings but most local campaigners can legally avoid it.

Changing this state of affairs has been a longstanding priority for the bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Pat Browne (R-Allentown). Browne, still in recovery from a motorcycle accident that occurred earlier this month, did not himself testify at the committee hearing. 

“Paper filing of campaign finance reports is outdated, costly, and inefficient,” the senator wrote in a memorandum on the legislation. “Requiring all filings to be electronically filed would greatly improve government transparency and accountability while at the same time reducing expenses for the state. According to the Department of State, a third of all campaign finance reports are already filed electronically. If the other two-thirds of candidates and political action committees were to file electronically, the existing online system would be able to handle it with no additional cost.”

Browne’s measure passed unanimously by voice vote and thus goes on to the full Senate.

Another change to Pennsylvania’s election law garnered bipartisan enthusiasm at the Senate hearing as well: moving the state’s presidential primary from the fourth Tuesday in April to the third Tuesday of March. The bill’s author, State Sen. John Gordner (R-Columbia), lamented the fact that both major parties typically have their primary contests resolved by voters in other states before Pennsylvanians can make any impact.

“This will allow our voters to have a significant say in the outcome of these essential elections, while not running afoul of any rules set forth by the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee,” Gordner wrote in a memo on the bill.

Over a decade ago, the national Republican and Democratic parties informally agreed to penalize states other than Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina if they held their presidential primaries or caucuses before March 15. Specifically, parties in errant states would lose some delegates at their national conventions. 

Gordner’s proposed change would not trigger the penalties and would place his state’s presidential contest on the same day as Arizona, Florida and Illinois. Primaries in non-presidential years would be unaffected.

“It could increase our relevancy in the primary elections, so I support the bill,” State Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) said. 

The Senate panel also approved legislation sponsored by State Sen. Scott Martin (R-Strasburg) to slightly raise the threshold of support that write-in candidates in the Keystone State must receive at the ballot box.

The senator said instances of a voter offhandedly or waggishly writing in another resident’s name, even when the latter may lack interest or qualification for the position, impelled the authoring of the bill.

“Too often, at our local level, we see individuals chosen by one simple write-in vote, oftentimes even as a joke—I’m sure we’ve all heard of Mickey Mouse or others who have been written in on these things,” Martin said. “The consequences of this low threshold have led to issues across our entire commonwealth. These consequences in some cases have been minor due to incompetence or negligence and in some other cases ended up in criminal-related issues.”

Going forward, Martin wants to ensure that electoral victory requires amassing at least the same number of votes as the amount of petition signatures one must collect in order to get onto the ballot. Thresholds for local-office hopefuls are modest—usually in the low double digits—so the stipulation that a candidate get as many votes as he or she would need for ballot access would tend not to put local offices out of reach for serious candidates.

Theoretically, the proposed rule change would raise the bar appreciably for those pursuing state or federal office. (A state-representative candidate would need 300 votes and a state-Senate candidate would need 500 votes, for instance.) But elections in which no one has gained access to the ballot for those positions are virtually unheard of. 

Nonetheless, all Democrats on the committee opposed the Martin bill. The unanimous support of Republicans guaranteed its passage out of committee and onto the full chamber.

Martin did however win bipartisan committee approval of legislation to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to eliminate the separate ballots on which judicial retention questions appear. 

Pennsylvania residents elect both local and state judges and justices. Instead of requiring judges who want to stay on the job to run for reelection, state law asks voters to consider each jurist’s retention every 10 years. The state Constitution demands that retention questions appear on a separate ballot column, which Martin said confuses some voters and necessitates extraneous public expenses.

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Bradley Vasoli is a reporter at The Tennessee Star and The Star News Network. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].



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