Candidate Q&A: John Fetterman on His Run for U.S. Senate

Light blue background with dark blue-toned image of John Fetterman, a blue sign that reads "Welcomes to Pennsylvania, pursue your vote" in front of a pink text bubble, a map of Pennsylvania with a ruler in front of a red text bubble, a person holding a sign that reads "REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS = HUMAN WRITES" and a stack of pamphlets that say "Commonwealth of Pennsylvania"

Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Democrat John Fetterman has served as his home state’s lieutenant governor since 2019. Before his statewide election, he served as mayor of the Pittsburgh-area city Braddock since 2006. Now running to replace outgoing U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Fetterman faces Dr. Mehmet Oz (R), celebrity doctor and former host of “The Dr. Oz Show.” Endorsed by Toomey and former President Donald Trump, Oz, when referring to the 2020 election, has said “we cannot move on.” 

In Democracy Docket’s latest candidate Q&A of the 2022 cycle, U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman lays out his three “must-have” provisions in a federal voting rights bill, explains why Pennsylvania has become a focal point in the fight for democracy and chooses an AC/DC song for his walk-up.

Responses have been edited for style and clarity.

If elected to the U.S. Senate, how would you use your position to protect the right to vote nationwide and what are three “must-have” provisions you’d include in a federal voting rights bill and why?

The right to vote is the bedrock of our democracy. It is foundational to everything we strive to do as a country. The right to vote is what gives working Americans the power to stand up to the wealthy and powerful. Without it, we can kiss priorities like a livable wage, abortion rights and the union way of life goodbye. In the Senate, I will fight tirelessly to protect election integrity, secure the right to vote and protect our democracy — no matter what it takes. 

Three “must-have” provisions I would include in a federal voting rights bill are: 

  1. Secure elections: We must bring our elections into the 21st century and replace insecure voting machines that are vulnerable to interference by bad actors. We also need to standardize federal ballots using clear design principles — let’s leave “hanging chads” and other confusing ballots in the past. It’s also important that we increase technical security measures and civilian oversight of elections to ensure integrity. 
  2. Uniform federal election standards: We’ve seen Republican-led states adopt unfair, discriminatory voting statutes that lead to the disenfranchisement of large swaths of Americans. We can combat that with federal standards for elections. 
    1. Enact automatic voter registration and offer same-day registration on federal election days. 
    2. End election roll purges. States should only be allowed to expel a voter for a legitimate reason — loss of eligibility, death, change of address or an affirmative request from the voter. 
    3. Make voting easier. Congress should make Election Day a national holiday, mandate an early voting period and expand voting hours. 
    4. End partisan gerrymandering. We need to embrace and empower independent redistricting commissions to draw our districts. 
  3. Election law enforcement: Congress should work with states to incentivize their administering of state and local elections in accordance with federal guidelines and oversight — this includes strong protections against the potential subversion of election results by state and local officials charged with overseeing the ballot box. States that meet federal requirements could have their elections funded in part or in whole by the federal government. If certain states defy federal requirements in the execution of their federal elections, they should be taken to court and the federal government should step in to ensure every legally eligible voter has unfettered access to the ballot box. 

The war on mail-in voting and drop boxes has taken shape in Pennsylvania, with Republicans recently trying to block their usage in Lehigh County. What do you make of this increasing trend and why do you think the GOP has taken issue with this form of voting?

Let’s be clear: Mail-in voting in Pennsylvania was a Republican-led law. The GOP only started taking issue with it when mail-in ballots meant that Trump had lost [the 2020] election. And now they are continuing to enact bills to limit ballot access, and they continue to sow doubt in our election system to set the table for 2024 when Trump runs again. 

But the fact of the matter is that the 2020 election was secure and [President Joe] Biden won fair and square. If we want our democracy to survive, we need to fight back and work to expand access to the ballot box to ensure everyone has access to the sacred right to vote.  

After the primary in May, the top two Republican candidates in the race for this U.S. Senate seat — David McCormick and Dr. Mehmet Oz — went to court over the counting of undated mail-in ballots. This issue persisted for months when three counties refused to include these ballots in their vote totals, ignoring both federal and state court orders. While they finally certified their totals last month, what does their refusal mean for future elections in Pennsylvania?

Our democracy is fragile. We saw it in 2020, and in all likelihood we’ll see it again this year. Counties refusing to include lawfully submitted ballots, in defiance of federal and state court orders, endangers our democracy. And this brazen rule breaking will only embolden anti-democratic officials in future elections. We can and we must fight back and protect our democracy by enacting common-sense reforms. 

With Pennsylvania Republicans nominating state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R), a dedicated election denier, as their gubernatorial candidate, why do you think the “Big Lie” is so resonant with voters in your home state? 

In 2020, I was proud to defend Pennsylvania’s electoral integrity when it was under threat by the then-president of the United States. I think that the influence of the “Big Lie” on a subset of Pennsylvanians is the result of years of misinformation and lies on the part of the GOP and other far-right actors. 

But let’s be clear: The vast majority of Pennsylvanians do believe in our democracy and our elections, including many Republicans. 

Pennsylvania has become a keystone for both parties in the struggle for American democracy — from Rudy Giuliani’s infamous “Four Seasons” press conference to Biden’s major speech in Philly a few weeks ago. How would you describe the state of our democracy and why do you think politicians are turning to Pennsylvania to voice their views in this ongoing fight?

From partisan gerrymandering and unlimited corporate money flooding our elections, to voter suppression legislation, to election denial and the events of Jan. 6, our democracy is in serious danger. But we are fighting back and I believe that we will win. 

Pennsylvania is a crucial state when it comes to electing a president. In fact, the 2020 election was decided right here in Pennsylvania and when Trump and his cronies tried to undermine our democracy, we stood up and refused to let it happen. 

In 2016, Pennsylvania went to Trump and just four years later, reversed course in handing the presidency to Biden. What do you think changed in those four years and what does this reversal mean for Democrats in the Keystone State going forward?

I can’t speak for all Pennsylvania voters, but after four years of scandal, lies and utter federal government dysfunction, I think voters probably decided enough was enough. Trump and the GOP were taking our country down a dangerous path of division, fear and hatred. President Biden offered unity and trust — that resonated with Pennsylvania voters. 

In 2016, Trump won Pennsylvania by one percentage point. In 2020, Biden won by two percentage points. I consider that three point shift towards Democrats from one presidential election to the next significant, but not yet a trend. I think that in November we will show the country that Pennsylvania is ready to continue moving forward. We are ready to invest in working people, we are ready to safeguard our democracy and we are ready to stand up for abortion rights. 

Go-to walk up song? 

You can’t go wrong with Back in Black by AC/DC. 

Most underrated fact about Pennsylvania? 

Pennsylvania is one of the few states that is a commonwealth — along with Kentucky, Massachusetts and Virginia. The designator comes from old political thinkers who wanted to emphasize the ideal of politics for the common good. The term has no legal meaning now, but serves as an important reminder of the kind of governance that we strive towards — by and for the people.