The Role of Referendum in Pennsylvania Local Government
It is a common misconception that municipalities are permitted to place referenda on the ballot for any area of law; however, in Pennsylvania municipal referenda are restricted to only specific areas of law. The Pennsylvania legislature has never enacted general initiative and referendum provisions that would allow local governments to place referenda on the ballots for any area of law sought to be changed, created, or repealed; with the exception of counties and municipalities that adopt home rule charters and third class cities. Using nonbinding referenda is neither permitted nor prohibited by statute of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Commonwealth Court, however, has determined that election boards are also not authorized to do so. Therefore, unless the specific area of law expressly authorizes local referenda on the ballot, municipal referenda are not allowed.
Presently, there are twenty-four areas of law in Pennsylvania that authorize referenda on the ballot; including fire protection, liquor licenses, debt authorization, intergovernmental cooperation, etc. The procedure required to place a referendum on the ballot may depend upon the area of law authorizing the referendum, whether the municipality is a third class city, and/or whether the municipality has adopted a home rule charter. The requirements and procedures are not provided in the Pennsylvania Election Code but instead are scattered throughout the specific areas of law which authorize particular questions. These specific areas of law also govern the date or type of election in which the referendum can be placed on the ballot. If a type is not specified, the question can be placed on the ballot on any election day.
Although the Election Code hardly mentions referenda and is completely silent on the requirements for placing referenda on the ballot, it does provide the requirements for petitions that must be completed before a referendum is placed on the ballot. The petition must include a designated three week circulation period before the election, identification of the referendum requested, and a citation to the statute that authorizes the referendum. The Code also provides that each signer be registered and enrolled in the district. There is no requirement that the petition must include the entire question; however, this is frequently done to verify that signers were aware of the issue to be placed on the ballot.
The proposed referendum and petition must then be examined and approved by the county board of elections. After a reasonable time after receiving the petition, the board must either accept or reject the petition. The board must reject the petition if the petition contains material errors or defects, if there are any material alternations made to the petition after signatures were received, or if there were not enough signatures obtained. After approval by the board, any objections to the petition can be filed with the Court of Common Pleas. Challengers have seven days after the last day for filing of the petitions to file objections, regardless of when the petition is actually filed.
The Election Code governs ballot wording and requires that the question be worded to require a yes or no answer and not to exceed 75 words. Some areas of law require specific wording and others do not; if it does require specific wording, it must be strictly followed. The actual text of the question must appear in the county board of elections’ official notice of the election, published three to ten days before the election. There may also be requirements based on the authorizing law in a specific area that the municipal officers post additional notice. After all of these requirements have been satisfied, local governments are permitted to place the referendum on the election ballot.