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PA Department of State History

The Pennsylvania Department of State is one of the oldest government agencies in the nation, with roots that date back to the 1680s, nearly a century before the Revolutionary War.
It was in 1680 that William Penn petitioned Charles II of England for land in America. He requested a land grant in lieu of a large debt owed to his father, Admiral Sir William Penn. The King agreed, and in 1681, he affixed his signature to the Charter of Pennsylvania. 
Nearly a month after signing the Charter, King Charles II issued a declaration to the planters and inhabitants of the Province stating William Penn was their absolute proprietary and had full jurisdiction over the necessities of government. However, Penn would not arrive in the New World until five months later.
Throughout his proprietorship, Penn retained the title of Governor in name only. To take care of the day-to-day functions, he commissioned Captain William Markham, his cousin, as Deputy Governor in April 1681. A few of Markham’s duties were to:
  • Create a council consisting of nine people
  • Read his letter and the King’s declaration to the inhabitants, and take their acknowledgment of his authority and proprietorship.
  • Settle boundaries between Penn and his neighbors; to survey, set out, rent or sell lands
  • Erect courts; appoint sheriffs and justices of the peace, etc.
  • Call to aid any of the inhabitants for the legal suppression of upheaval, or other disturbances 

After he arrived in the New World, Penn convened the First General Assembly of the Province on December 4, 1682. The session lasted four days and enacted three laws:

  • Act of the Union of the Province and Territories.
  • Act to Naturalize the Dutch, Swedes, and other foreigners then residing within the province and territories.
  • Code of Laws that embraced most of the laws of England. 

After Penn had drafted his First Frame of Government, he established four committees, the first of which was the forerunner of the modern-day Department of State.

Before embarking on an extended journey back to England in 1684, Penn wrote a second frame of government. He made several appointments delegating authority and outlining duties to be carried out during his absence.  Among Penn’s appointees was Thomas Lloyd, a Quaker from Wales, who was named president of the Provincial Council and also the first keeper of the Great Seal, a duty that now resides with the Secretary of the Commonwealth. The most important appointment Penn made was that of William Markham as the first Secretary of the Province, the title used for more than 90 years.

The first documented reference to the Department of State appears in a law dated April 10, 1792.  The act authorized fees to be charged by the various “departments of the state,” including one headed by the Secretary of the Commonwealth.  The law also allowed for “subordinate officers” to be paid a portion of those fees, indicating that the Secretary’s duties now required a staff.

It was not until 1919 that the agency, then known as the Department of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, was divided into six bureaus: the Executive Bureau, the Corporation Bureau, the Commission Bureau, the Election and Legislative Bureau, the Requisition and Warrant Bureau, and the Registration Bureau.  Over the years, the bureau structure has been maintained, although the specific bureaus have been reorganized and redefined.

In 1929, the General Assembly passed the most important piece of legislation to date regarding the Department of State and the Secretary of the Commonwealth.  The Administrative Code of 1929 (A.C. 1929) clarified the appointment process for the Secretary and further defined the place and duties of the Secretary within the Commonwealth’s executive branch.

Article VII, Section 703:
Secretary of the Commonwealth.

The Secretary of the Commonwealth shall:

  • Keep a record of all official acts and proceedings of the Governor, and, when required, lay the same, with all papers, minutes, and vouchers relating thereto, before either branch of the General Assembly;
  • Record and file in his office the recommendations of the Board of Pardons, together with reasons and therefore;
  • Keep the Seal of the Commonwealth, and affix it to all public instruments to which the attestation of the Governor’s signature now is or may hereafter be required by law;
  • Have power and authority to administer to all officers the State Government such oaths or affirmations as, by the Constitution or laws of the Commonwealth, such as officers are required to make, in any and all matters pertaining to the administrative work of the Commonwealth;
  • To deliver the plates from which the Pennsylvania State Reports and Pennsylvania Superior Court Reports are printed, to the Department of Property and Supplies for safe keeping.

Additionally, A.C. 1929 called for a Deputy Secretary of the Commonwealth. Today, the department employs three deputies: Executive Deputy Secretary; Deputy Secretary for Elections and Administration; and Deputy Secretary for Regulatory Programs. An excerpt from section 213 of the A.C. 1929 reads:

The Governor shall appoint and fix the compensation of such number of deputy heads of administrative departments, who shall, in the absence of the head of such department, have the right to exercise all the powers and perform all the duties by law vested in and imposed upon the head of such department.

A.C. 1929 also defined the functions of the Department of State and its Departmental Administrative Board, stating:

The Department of State shall, subject to any inconsistent provisions in this act contained, continue to exercise the powers and perform the duties heretofore by law vested in and imposed upon the Department of the Secretary of the  Commonwealth, and the several bureaus thereof, the Department of State and Finance, the Department of State, and the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
 Furthermore, the General Administration section of A.C. 1929 required the Department of State to complete two duties:
  1. Grant the General Assembly, Pennsylvania’s legislative body, access to all documents of the Department of State, an executive body, thereby promoting cooperation between the branches of Pennsylvania’s government.
  2.  Allow all citizens of Pennsylvania access to government documents.
Additional provisions of A.C. 1929 required the Department of State to:
  1. Furnish any type of information requested pertaining to the various affairs of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (provided that nothing requested had been deemed confidential by law).
  2. Cooperate as much as possible with the other branches of government.
  3. Adopt rules and regulations pertaining to its powers and duties, when necessary.
The Department protects the public's health and safety by licensing more than one million businesses and health professionals; promotes the integrity of the electoral process; supports economic development through corporate registrations and transactions; maintains registration and financial information for thousands of charities; and sanctions professional boxing, kickboxing, wrestling and mixed martial arts.

Today, the Secretary of the Commonwealth is appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate.  The Secretary is Pennsylvania’s Chief Election Official and a member of the Governor’s Executive Board. The Secretary is also the keeper of the Great Seal of the Commonwealth and authenticates government documents through the use of the seal. 

The Secretary of the Commonwealth oversees an extremely diverse department with responsibilities in areas such as:

  • Campaign finance reporting.
  • Charity oversight.
  • Corporate filings.
  • Commissions.
  • Elections.
  • Legislation.
  • Lobbying disclosure.
  • Notaries.
  • Professional and occupational licensure.
  • Professional boxing, wrestling and mixed martial arts.
  • Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors (SURE).

The bureaus charged with those duties are:

  • Bureau of Commissions, Elections, and Legislation.
  • Bureau of Corporations and Charitable Organizations.
  • Bureau of Enforcement and Investigation.
  • Bureau of Finance and Operations.
  • Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs.
  • State Athletic Commission.