With election season officially underway—it technically began on March 29, ballots should be in the mail soon and polls are open on May 18—now is the time to dig in to whom and what you’ll be voting on this spring.
This is a primary election, so you must be registered as either Democrat or Republican in Pennsylvania to be able to select the candidates who will face off in the November general election on November 2. For Philadelphians registered outside of those parties, such as Independents, you will have a chance to vote on five ballot questions—including an amendment to the Home Rule Charter (more on that below).
We lay out everything you need to know about how to vote in Pennsylvania here, but here are some quick takeaways:
Your mail-in ballots must be received by the County Board of Elections by 8pm on primary election day, but why wait that long? Fill out your ballot and get it in as soon as possible.
With this voter guide, we aim to make that process easier by laying out everything that will be on your ballot below.
Want to skip ahead? See who’s on the ballot in the PA 2021 primary for …
- District Attorney of Philadelphia
- City Controller of Philadelphia
- PA Court of Common Pleas
- Philadelphia Municipal Court
- Commonwealth Court
- Superior Court of Pennsylvania
- Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
- Judge and Inspector of Election
- And check out your five ballot questions
DISTRICT ATTORNEY (VOTE FOR ONE)
As chief prosecutor for the City, the district attorney determines what crimes will be prosecuted, and the severity of the charges. You may ask, “Don’t judges have the final say in sentencing?” Sure, if the case goes to trial. But the vast majority of cases are actually decided by plea bargain, meaning the D.A.’s office has an incredible amount of power and discretion.
- Larry Krasner (incumbent): Longtime civil rights attorney previously known for suing the police 75 times, Larry Krasner won his first election in 2017 on a “progressive prosecutor” platform, with an ambitious—and controversial—slate of criminal justice reforms. His tenure has put to the test the ability to reform the system and keep residents safe, as homicides over the last few years have skyrocketed to levels not seen for decades.
- Carlos Vega: The first Latino homicide prosecutor in Pennsylvania, Carlos Vega served in the D.A.’s office for 35 years until Krasner fired him the day he took office. A vocal critic of Krasner, Vega is a “law and order” prosecutor, who has pledged to take on the gun violence epidemic, and to work with the police—whose union has endorsed him—while also prosecuting them for criminal abuses.
- Chuck Peruto: A longtime criminal defense attorney, Democrat-turned-Republican Peruto announced his candidacy in February with an attack on Krasner for being out of touch and ineffective in keeping the people of Philadelphia safe, and with skepticism that Vega can win the primary. Peruto himself is no stranger to controversy, most famously for the so-called “girl in the bathtub” incident in which his legal assistant/girlfriend accidentally died at his house while he was away. (The episode prompted a grand jury investigation that resulted in no charges being filed.)
Recent coverage about the D.A. candidates
- The race for DA is off to a too-familiar start. Here’s hoping it will include a debate over what smart reform might look like
- A former Philly homicide prosecutor fired by District Attorney Larry Krasner is challenging him for reelection
- High-profile Philly lawyer Chuck Peruto is challenging DA Larry Krasner as a Republican
- Philly DA Larry Krasner and challenger Carlos Vega enter election homestretch as gun violence surges
CITY CONTROLLER (VOTE FOR ONE)
The city controller is the top fiscal watchdog of the city, auditing expenditures of the city government. This race tends to take a back seat to the more high-profile district attorney contest, but it’s incredibly important.
- Rebecca Rhynhart (incumbent): In her nearly four years as city controller, Rebecca Rhynhart has arguably been the most consistent and fiercest critic of the Kenney administration. She has used the subpoena power of her office to issue reports—like the recent devastating investigation of the city’s law enforcement response to the post-George Floyd protests—that have been substantive, despite Kenney’s accusation that Rhynhart is playing politics. Rhynhart is arguably the city’s most prominent reformer, as evidenced by her role on the advisory council of Accelerator for America, a group of mayors and civic leaders, founded by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, that bills itself as “the R&D arm of cities and mayors.”
- No Republican is on the ballot.
Recent coverage about the city controller candidate
- Rebecca Rhynhart is cruising to reelection. Can she be Philly mayor next?
- Rebecca Rhynhart released an alternative to Mayor Kenney’s revised tax-and-cut budget. Will City Council listen?
- In a Citizen virtual town hall, the city’s financial watchdog shared one key to our future success: total transparency
JUSTICE OF THE SUPREME COURT (VOTE FOR ONE)
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the Commonwealth and the oldest appellate court in the nation. There is one vacancy on this court, which is known as the “court of last resort” and can assume jurisdiction over any case in the PA court system. Seven justices serve on the Court and their job is to make the final judgment in interpreting PA’s laws and Constitution.
JUDGE OF THE SUPERIOR COURT (VOTE FOR ONE)
There is one vacancy open in 2021 on the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, which serves as the appeals court for most citizens and businesses. It is one of the busiest intermediate appellate courts in the country, receiving hundreds of thousands of filings per year and deciding more than 8,000 individual cases.
- Jill Beck (read Better Civics’ Q&A with Beck)
- Timika Lane
- Bryan Neft (read Better Civics’ Q&A with Neft)
JUDGE OF THE COMMONWEALTH COURT (VOTE FOR NO MORE THAN TWO)
There are two vacancies on the Commonwealth Court, which hears civil cases involving state or local government. It also hears appeals and sometimes sits as a trial court in certain cases brought by or against the Commonwealth, such as a constitutional challenge to a state law or a tax dispute. Pennsylvania has the only court like it in the country.
- David Lee Spurgeon
- Lori A Dumas (read Better Civics’ Q&A with Dumas)
- Sierra Street (read Better Civics’ Q&A with Street)
- Amanda Green Hawkins
- Drew Crompton (no website found)
- Stacy Marie Wallace (website redirects to donor page)
JUDGE OF THE COURT OF COMMON PLEAS (VOTE FOR NO MORE THAN EIGHT)
There are eight vacancies on this court, which is known as a “general trial jurisdiction court,” because the Courts of Common Pleas are organized into 60 judicial districts. This court is responsible for hearing criminal and civil cases, including those involving families and children; hearing appeals from the minor courts and appeals not exclusively assigned to another court; and holding civil, criminal and jury trials. Sample court cases include divorce, property division, alimony, custody and child support, paternity and protection orders.
Read more about the candidates running for judge of the Court of Common Pleas in our comprehensive PA judicial election guide.
- Wendi Barish (recommended by the Philadelphia Bar Association)
- Terri M. Booker (not recommended)
- Rick Cataldi (not recommended)
- Chris Hall (highly recommended)
- Michele Hangley (highly recommended)
- Maurice Houston (not recommended)
- Nick Kamau (highly recommended)
- Craig Levin (recommended)
- Cateria R. McCabe (recommended)
- Mark Moore (highly recommended)
- Patrick J. Moran (not recommended)
- John R. Padova (highly recommended)
- Daniel Sulman (recommended)
- Caroline Turner (recommended)
- Tamika Washington (recommended)
- Betsy Wahl (recommended)
- There is no Republican on the ballot.
JUDGE OF THE MUNICIPAL COURT (VOTE FOR NO MORE THAN THREE)
There are three vacancies on the Philadelphia Municipal Court, which is responsible for determining whether serious criminal cases go to the Court of Common Pleas; preliminary arraignments and hearings; and setting and accepting bail, except in murder or voluntary manslaughter cases. Some sample court cases include traffic tickets, landlord-tenant disputes, underage drinking.
Read more about the candidates running for a seat on the Philadelphia Municipal Court in our comprehensive PA judicial election guide.
- There is no Republican on the ballot.
JUDGE AND INSPECTOR OF ELECTION (VOTE FOR ONE)
These folks are your neighbors, and must live in your voting division (e.g. 2-06 means Ward 2, Division 6). Two inspectors in each division make sure the polling machines are up and running on time, and one judge of election ensures everything is setup in compliance with state and local laws. There are 1,686 divisions in the city, so we suggest checking out this PDF page from the City Commissioners Office to find all the candidates running in your district.
Ballot Language: Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration—and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration—through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?
Plain Language: This constitutional amendment, according to the Office of the Attorney General, would allow the General Assembly to terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration or a portion of such declaration without needing the governor’s approval. The amendment came about in response to Gov. Wolf’s emergency declarations during the coronavirus epidemic, but the language has been a source of continuing controversy
A “yes” vote supports this constitutional amendment to allow the Pennsylvania General Assembly to pass a resolution, which the governor cannot veto, by a simple majority to extend or terminate the governor’s emergency declaration.
A”no” vote opposes this constitutional amendment, meaning that the governor would continue to be allowed to veto resolutions terminating emergency declarations and a two-thirds legislative vote would be required to override the veto.
Question 2: Pennsylvania Emergency Declarations Amendment
Ballot Language: Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?
Plain Language: According to the Office of the Attorney General, this amendment would:
- Grant the governor authority to declare a disaster emergency declaration by proclamation or executive order;
- Require each declaration to indicate the nature, location and type of disaster;
- Grant the General Assembly authority to pass laws providing for the manner in which each disaster shall be managed;
- Limit the duration of a governor’s declaration to 21 days, unless otherwise extended, in whole or in part, by a concurrent resolution of the General Assembly;
- Prevent the governor, upon the expiration of a declaration, from issuing a new declaration based upon the same or substantially similar facts, unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution expressly approving a new declaration.
A “yes” vote supports this constitutional amendment to limit the governor’s emergency declaration to 21 days unless the legislature votes on a concurrent resolution to extend the order and provide that the state legislature shall pass laws related to how disaster emergencies must be managed.
A “no” vote opposes this constitutional amendment, meaning the governor would continue to be allowed to issue emergency declarations without a legislative vote after 21 days.
Question 3: Prohibition Against Denial or Abridgement of Equality of Rights Because of Race or Ethnicity
Ballot Language: Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended by adding a new section providing that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of an individual’s race or ethnicity?
Plain language: According to the Office of the Attorney General, if passed, this amendment would make it illegal to restrict or deny an individual’s equal rights under Pennsylvania law because of race or ethnicity.
A “no” vote opposes adding language to the state constitution that prohibits the denial or curtailing of rights on account of an individual’s race or ethnicity.
Ballot Language: Do you favor expanding the use of the indebtedness authorized under the referendum for loans to volunteer fire companies, volunteer ambulance services and volunteer rescue squads under 35 PA.C.S. §7378.1 (related to referendum for additional indebtedness) to include loans to municipal fire departments or companies that provide services through paid personnel and emergency medical services companies for the purpose of establishing and modernizing facilities to house apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, and for purchasing apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, protective and communications equipment and any other accessory equipment necessary for the proper performance of the duties of the fire companies and emergency medical services companies?
Plain Language: The purpose of the ballot question, according to the Attorney General, is to determine whether Pennsylvania voters authorize making municipal fire departments or companies with paid personnel and emergency medical services companies eligible to apply for loans from an already existing state loan program. This referendum does not authorize incurring any additional debt to fund the loan program; it only expands the class of eligible loan applicants.
A “no” vote would prevent fire departments from applying for loans from the state program.
Question 5: Proposed Philadelphia Home Rule Charter Change
Ballot Language: Shall The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to provide for an expanded Board of License Inspection Review that can hear and decide cases in three-member panels?
Plain Language: The City’s Home Rule Charter is like the City’s constitution; it sets up the rules for City government. If you vote “Yes” on this ballot question, it means you want to change the City’s Charter so that the City’s Board of License and Inspection Review is expanded to have nine members and is allowed to hear and decide cases in groups of three members at a time.
A “yes” vote would allow the Board to increase to nine members, and allow the Board Chair to designate groups of three members to hear and decide cases, which might allow the process to move more quickly.
A “no” vote would keep the system as it is, with the full Board consisting of six members, the majority of whom must participate in order to hear a case.
Further reading on the Home Rule Charter
- Our local constitution hasn’t been updated for nearly 70 years. Isn’t it about time for a refresh?
- Locals weigh in on how to reform the Philly City Charter