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Penn Leads the Vote, a nonpartisan student organization, helping Penn community members register to vote in Sept. 2019. Credit: Kylie Cooper

Every four years, presidential elections capture the public’s attention and put politics to the forefront of public discourse in the United States. Meanwhile, local elections occur in Philadelphia every two years and are equally as important, yet they receive much less attention from both the media and the public alike. With a local primary election coming up in Philadelphia on May 18, it is critically important Penn students understand the importance of the offices and ballot measures that they can vote on, because student voters will make a difference.

This May, there will be elections for Philadelphia district attorney, Philadelphia city controller, judges of election, inspectors of elections, and local and state judgeships, including for the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. All voters in Pennsylvania will also vote on at least three proposed amendments to the Pennsylvania Constitution: the Equal Rights Regardless of Race or Ethnicity Amendment, the Emergency Declarations Amendment, and the Legislative Resolution to Extend or Terminate Emergency Declaration Amendment. As ballots have not yet been finalized, there could possibly be additional ballot measures in the May election.

The Philadelphia district attorney is a position with a significant impact on criminal justice in the city. The district attorney is responsible for deciding to bring charges and prosecute people who are arrested for violating state and local laws. The current Philadelphia district attorney, progressive Larry Krasner, pulled off an improbable victory in the 2017 primary race, in part because voters recognized the importance of turning out for this otherwise low-salience election. Since then, Krasner has instituted a number of reforms, including instructing Philadelphia prosecutors to not prosecute marijuana charges when there is no intent to sell. Krasner is running again in the May primary election for district attorney, in what is sure to be an intense race. Running against Krasner in the Democratic primary is Carlos Vega, who has proclaimed that he will be a “voice for victims” of crime. Penn students have the ability to help shape the criminal justice system in Philadelphia through their vote this May, an opportunity they should not give up.

There are also several important judicial elections on the ballot this May, most notably for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. One seat on the seven-member state Supreme Court is on the ballot. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the court of last resort in Pennsylvania and has decided numerous important cases in recent years, including one where the Court redrew Pennsylvania’s congressional maps after finding that the existing maps were unconstitutionally gerrymandered. Gerrymandering is the process of drawing electoral districts, such as those for the House of Representatives, in such a way as to benefit incumbents or a certain party, and the way that the boundaries are drawn can have major impacts on who wins elections. Voting for a state Supreme Court justice is yet another way for Penn students to have an impact in this election on both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.

There are several other local elected officials on the ballot, who have a significant impact on the day-to-day happenings in Philadelphia. The city controller oversees much of Philadelphia’s finances, with responsibilities including serving as an auditor for the Philadelphia School District, serving on the Philadelphia Gas Commission, and serving on the Board of Pensions and Retirement. There are also races for local election officers, which oversee elections held in Philadelphia. With so many local officials on the ballot, Penn students have many opportunities to make their voice heard in state and local government this May.

For the three ballot measures on the ballot this May, this will be the only opportunity for voters to voice their opinions on these critical issues. One very important ballot measure is a proposed amendment to the Pennsylvania State Constitution that explicitly prohibits denying or abridging someone’s rights on the basis of their race or ethnicity. Second, there is also a proposed amendment that would limit the length of the Pennsylvania governor’s emergency declarations to 21 days, unless the state legislature explicitly extends a declaration. The third proposed amendment would allow the legislature to pass a resolution at any time to extend or terminate an emergency declaration made by the governor, with the resolution not subject to a veto by the governor. The latter two ballot measures are especially relevant amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, where Governor Wolf has made several emergency declarations to prevent the spread of the virus. As the past 12 months have been dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and a nationwide reckoning on race, Penn students have the ability to voice their opinion on important issues that will significantly impact  the Philadelphia community.

From local elected officials, to judges, to constitutional amendments, Penn students have an opportunity to make a big difference this May. Penn Leads the Vote is available to help with any and every voting-related question or concern. We can be reached via email at Students are also encouraged to visit our website for customized voter information and resources. All politics is local, so let’s use our voices this May by voting in the local primary elections and make a difference in our community.

PENN LEADS THE VOTE is the University’s non-partisan election hub. Visit for more information.