The Citizens' Voice


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


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.
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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