How will re­dis­trict­ing work in Penn­syl­va­nia fol­low­ing the state Supreme Court’s land­mark rul­ing on ger­ry­man­der­ing? We’re about to find out

The Citizens' Voice - - CAPITOL WATCH - BY MIKE WERESCHAGI­N the cau­cus

The bot­tom line for most re­dis­trict­ing re­form pro­po­nents is this: Law­mak­ers can’t be trusted to draw their own dis­tricts. The in­cen­tives are so skewed in fa­vor of pro­tect­ing their own jobs, max­i­miz­ing their party’s po­ten­tial to gain and hold power and keep­ing their op­po­nents on their heels, that it’s all but cer­tain they’ll game the sys­tem. Maybe that’s not the prob­lem, though.

“In my mind, we are to­tally ca­pa­ble of draw­ing fair dis­tricts,” said Rep. Garth Everett. “We just were never re­quired to.” But the ground has shifted. “That time-hon­ored tra­di­tion of the ma­jor­ity party being able to ger­ry­man­der their dis­tricts is prob­a­bly a time that’s gone by,” said Everett, chair­man of the House State Gov­ern­ment Com­mit­tee.

When the Ly­coming County Repub­li­can took over the com­mit­tee in Jan­uary, he in­stantly be­came one of the state’s most in­flu­en­tial voices at one of the most cru­cial times for one of the most far-reach­ing de­ci­sions fac­ing law­mak­ers in Har­ris­burg. Any re­dis­trict­ing re­form push that hopes to change state law has to get past him first.

And the clock is tick­ing. Re­form pro­po­nents have spent years build­ing a groundswel­l of public sup­port. Gov. Tom Wolf ’s com­mis­sion on the topic re­leased its long-awaited rec­om­men­da­tions Aug. 29, and leg­is­la­tors are in­tro­duc­ing last-chance pro­pos­als to re­tool a foun­da­tional el­e­ment of the demo­cratic process that will shape Penn­syl­va­nia for a decade.

They have about six months to get it done.

Af­ter that, there may not be time to make changes be­fore the census wraps up some­time next year, Everett said. And a map de­signed to ce­ment one party’s ma­jor­ity might not fly this time, thanks to a land­mark state Supreme Court rul­ing last year that found Penn­syl­va­nia’s ger­ry­man­dered con­gres­sional dis­tricts vi­o­lated the con­sti­tu­tion.

“I think it’s be­com­ing clear that we should not use po­lit­i­cal de­mo­graphic data as part of our de­ci­sion-mak­ing process,” Everett said.

Everett sched­uled a hear­ing on the re­dis­trict­ing process for Wed­nes­day.

“I’m not go­ing in with any precon­ceived con­clu­sion as to where we’re go­ing to end up,” Everett said. “I want to have a full con­ver­sa­tion and ed­u­cate the Leg­is­la­ture on what we do.”

The hear­ing won’t ex­plore any sin­gle piece of leg­is­la­tion, Everett said, be­cause he’s not sure law­mak­ers are ready for that yet.

Of the State Gov­ern­ment Com­mit­tee’s 23 mem­bers, only Everett and mi­nor­ity chair­man Kevin Boyle, D-philadel­phia, were in of­fice dur­ing the last round of re­dis­trict­ing, af­ter the 2010cen­sus.

In all, nearly half of all state leg­is­la­tors — 24 sen­a­tors and 97 rep­re­sen­ta­tives — won their first terms af­ter the cur­rent maps took ef­fect in 2014. This will be their first re­dis­trict­ing. If the next maps take ef­fect as sched­uled, in 2022, half of the state’s sen­a­tors — 12 Democrats and 13 Repub­li­cans — will face re­elec­tion in re­drawn dis­tricts.

In ad­di­tion to a wit­ness who will ex­plain how other states draw leg­isla­tive dis­tricts, Everett’s com­mit­tee will get a sum­mary of Wolf’s Re­dis­trict­ing Re­form Com­mis­sion rec­om­men­da­tions from the group’s chair­man, David Thorn­burgh.

Pars­ing par­ti­sans

The cen­tral rec­om­men­da­tion is to con­sol­i­date re­dis­trict­ing author­ity for both fed­eral and state leg­isla­tive dis­tricts un­der one 11-mem­ber com­mis­sion. (Cur­rent law gives state-level re­dis­trict­ing author­ity to a five­mem­ber com­mis­sion and al­lows the Leg­is­la­ture to draw con­gres­sional dis­tricts through the nor­mal law­mak­ing process.)

The com­mis­sion rests on some novel in­fra­struc­ture. Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic leg­isla­tive lead­er­ship would each get five ap­point­ments: two from their own party, two from the op­pos­ing party, and one in­de­pen­dent. The gov­er­nor would ap­point the 11th com­mis­sioner.

New Hamp­shire law­mak­ers re­cently tried some­thing sim­i­lar. Their bill would have cre­ated an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion for which Democrats would se­lect five Repub­li­can mem­bers and Repub­li­cans would pick five Democrats. Gov. Chris Su­nunu ve­toed the bill Aug. 9, writ­ing in his veto mes­sage that the “drafters of our con­sti­tu­tion were very wise to vest (re­dis­trict­ing) author­ity in the peo­ple’s elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives, who are ac­count­able to the vot­ers ev­ery two years.”

That’s a cen­tral ar­gu­ment of those in fa­vor of the sta­tus quo. But crit­ics say the ac­count­abil­ity ar­gu­ment falls apart in an era in which com­put­ers al­low leg­is­la­tors to tailor dis­tricts to their own pol­i­tics.

“The peo­ple should be pick­ing their rep­re­sen­ta­tives rather than the rep­re­sen­ta­tives pick­ing their peo­ple,” said Rep. Tom Murt, R-mont­gomery County. Murt co-spon­sored a pair of re­form bills with Rep. Steve Sa­muel­son, D-northamp­ton County, that would hand re­dis­trict­ing over to a group of 11 vot­ers picked through a process com­bin­ing el­e­ments of ran­dom se­lec­tion, par­ti­san bal­ance and de­mo­graphic di­ver­sity.

Penn­syl­va­nia’s cur­rent par­ti­san-heavy method comes from the 1968 Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion. But there’s ev­i­dence that leg­is­la­tors back then were ac­tu­ally try­ing to re­move pol­i­tics from the process, Thorn­burgh said.

Take the Leg­isla­tive Reap­por­tion­ment Com­mis­sion, which draws state House and Se­nate dis­tricts. Cau­cus lead­ers each pick one mem­ber. If those four can’t agree on a chair — and they never do — the state Supreme Court chooses the tiebreaker. Since the jus­tices run as Repub­li­cans or Democrats, that se­lec­tion has its own par­ti­san bag­gage.

But one of the ma­jor pushes at the 1968 con­ven­tion was to shift se­lec­tion of judges from elec­tions to a merit-based sys­tem, and sup­port­ers of that shift were on the verge of win­ning un­til the very end, Thorn­burgh said.

“The pre­vail­ing as­sump­tion was that we were go­ing to have a merit-se­lec­tion sys­tem,” Thorn­burgh said. So, he said, it stands to rea­son that when the drafters of Penn­syl­va­nia’s new con­sti­tu­tion gave the state Supreme Court ul­ti­mate author­ity to ap­point the tiebreaker, they thought they would be hand­ing that power to a group in­su­lated from pol­i­tics.

His read­ing of that po­lit­i­cal mo­ment echoes in the re­dis­trict­ing re­form re­port: The 11th mem­ber of their pro­posed com­mis­sion would be non­vot­ing and would have the role of bro­ker be­tween the sides.

“In these over­heated par­ti­san times, peo­ple are get­ting tired of, ‘I have five votes and you have four, so I get ev­ery­thing,’” Thorn­burgh said.

Shift­ing pol­i­tics

Which party has the up­per hand has shifted. In 2011, Repub­li­cans con­trolled the House, Se­nate, gov­er­nor’s of­fice and had a ma­jor­ity on the Supreme Court, giv­ing them sway over state and con­gres­sional re­dis­trict­ing. This time around, there’s a Demo­crat in the gov­er­nor’s of­fice and Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity on the Supreme Court.

Re­form ad­vo­cates like Carol Ku­ni­holm have made that point to Repub­li­cans. Ku­ni­holm is the chair and co-founder of Fair Dis­tricts PA, a group that has worked for the last few years to build public sup­port for get­ting law­mak­ers as far from the re­dis­trict­ing process as pos­si­ble.

“We have talked with quite a few peo­ple who are quite ex­cited about the op­por­tu­nity to have the Democrats draw the maps in 2021,” Ku­ni­holm said. “Given how badly they were treated over the last 20 years, de­spite hav­ing the ma­jor­ity of reg­is­tered vot­ers in the state, there’s a lot of bit­ter­ness over that, and that will cer­tainly resur­face.”

Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Jay Costa, D-al­le­gheny County, said the prospect of hav­ing his party in the driver’s seat hasn’t dis­suaded him from sup­port­ing re­dis­trict­ing re­form.

“I have been an ad­vo­cate for fair, rep­re­sen­ta­tive dis­tricts for many years. My opin­ion on that doesn’t change, even if (the­o­ret­i­cally) Democrats are con­trol­ling the process,” Costa wrote in a state­ment emailed to The Cau­cus. “Vot­ers de­serve a voice in their state and fed­eral rep­re­sen­ta­tion, but par­ti­san ger­ry­man­dered dis­tricts rob them of that. I will con­tinue to fight for a more fair process, re­gard­less of who is in the ma­jor­ity party in the PA Se­nate.”

Public pres­sure on state of­fi­cials to take this on has in­creased dur­ing the past few years. By way of leg­is­la­tion or pop­u­lar ref­er­en­dum, eight states have shifted at least some re­dis­trict­ing power from law­mak­ers to in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sions since 2000.

Five of those shifts oc­curred last year alone, Penn­syl­va­nia’s re­dis­trict­ing re­form com­mis­sion found.

Murt, who took of­fice in 2007, first saw the process from the in­side af­ter the 2010 census.

“The tech­nol­ogy that is avail­able is as­tound­ing,” Murt said. “There are elec­tronic maps your cau­cus can use to show you that, if you get this par­tic­u­lar ward, here’s the reg­is­tra­tion, here’s how many peo­ple voted for (2008 GOP pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Sen.) John Mccain.”

Murt’s dis­trict stretches from north­ern Philadel­phia into Mont­gomery County, split­ting Up­per Dublin Twp. in its jour­ney.

“My own dis­trict has been sliced up, ger­ry­man­dered, prob­a­bly as bad as any­body’s in the com­mon­wealth,” Murt said.

Democrats now out­num­ber Repub­li­cans in his dis­trict by al­most 3,000 vot­ers, ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of State.

Whether Murt can over­come that gap shouldn’t be up to map­ping soft­ware, he said.

“De­spite all the tech­nol­ogy that ex­ists, if you’re not will­ing to knock on doors and do the grass­roots stuff, maybe you should con­sider an­other ca­reer.”

‘The peo­ple should be pick­ing their rep­re­sen­ta­tives rather than the rep­re­sen­ta­tives pick­ing their peo­ple.’

Rep. Tom Murt R-mont­gomery county

As­so­ci­ated Press FILE

Wil­liam Marx points to pro­jected im­ages of the old con­gres­sional dis­tricts of Penn­syl­va­nia on top, and the new re­drawn dis­tricts on the bot­tom, while stand­ing in the class­room where he teaches civics in Pitts­burgh in Novem­ber.

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