By Rep. Anita Kulik
The year 2020 saw changes in the way we vote. Whether you agree with the changes or not, COVID-19 had us rethinking the voting process as well as so many of the other things we do daily. Due to the political climate of 2020, a record number of voters filled out ballots. As I am sure you know, we are currently debating various issues and proposals regarding how, when and where we vote. These are important issues, and the rights we have to vote are what set us apart from many other countries.
Unfortunately, while our ancestors fought and died for our freedoms, including our right to vote, voters typically do not turn out in great numbers for election cycles following national elections. National elections get substantial media coverage and public attention, while local elections get little.
We will vote locally in the 2021 primary and general elections. Judges at all court levels will be on the ballot; from local magistrates and county judges, to superior, commonwealth and supreme court judges. We will also vote for county, city and municipal officials and school directors. While voters tend to take these races less seriously than national races, these local officials have a much greater effect on our everyday lives than federal officials.
If you contest a speeding ticket, you go before a local magistrate. Criminal matters, even minor ones, can end up before a common pleas court judge, as do custody, support, civil and estate matters. Commonwealth court and superior court judges hear appeals and interpret laws. Supreme court justices primarily interpret laws challenged for their constitutionality coming from the legislature and hear cases appealed to them from the general population on constitutional legal arguments.
There are nine open seats just for the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. This number of openings has not occurred in decades and those elected have the potential to change the way our courts are managed for years to come. The elections for the higher courts could also have lasting impacts on case law in the future.
Local municipal officials look after everything from road paving, snow removal, noise ordinances, sewer and water systems, parks and many other things that affect us every day.
The county council is much the same but on a larger scale. Each also controls the levels of various tax assessments and other municipal charges.
School directors make decisions on our children’s school curriculum, what schools serve for lunch, and which curriculum is taught. They are the ones who work on teacher and employee contracts and they hire administrators, teachers, bus drivers and staff. Directors also have the final word on our school tax millage. When you pay your local taxes, the school tax is always, by far, the largest tax assessment you pay.
Voting for local officials can be the most important votes we cast. Paying attention to local races will yield the greatest impacts on our towns and schools, and directly upon each of us.
Voters will find several questions on the primary ballot dealing with specific and important issues. Some are looking to make constitutional changes.
Amending the Pennsylvania Constitution is a long legislative process that ends in the hands of the voters. After a year of dealing with the pandemic, voters will have the ability to decide whether or not to change the way disaster declarations are handled on the state level.
For the past year, it has generally been understood action has to be taken to curb the virus. One of the jobs of government is to protect the people it represents. Most of the disagreement arose out of how things were done, from the shutdowns to other orders that affected our personal lives and businesses.
We will, unfortunately, see future natural disasters, epidemics and pandemics. We will continue to look to our leaders to make hard decisions. Votes on ballot questions will help us plan for the future. We have surely learned from our good decisions and from our missteps, whether in our personal and professional lives or our governmental decisions. This is why it is important to consider not only our votes for local officials but also how we consider the ballot questions. I encourage you to review and research them to fully understand the implications and impact your votes will have in the future.
A Kennedy resident and attorney, State Rep. Anita Kulik has served the 45th district of Pennsylvania since 2017.