Pennsylvania’s redistribution reform is dead for now, supporters say. So what’s the next step?
This article is part of a year-long reporting project focusing on redistribution and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It is made possible thanks to the support of Featured sound system members and Vote, a project focused on the integrity of elections and access to the vote.
HARRISBURG – Supporters of redistribution reform in Pennsylvania are having a disappointing déjà vu moment.
In 2020, after advocates staged rallies and won public and bipartisan support from some lawmakers, the Republican-controlled legislature effectively killed their proposal to create an independent commission devoid of elected officials who could unfairly influence the process. drawing up of political maps of the State.
But they had a Plan B: the Legislative Congressional and Redistricting Act, which would put tighter safeguards on how lawmakers sketched congressional and legislative districts and add transparency requirements to get the process out of behind doors. closed.
This year, anti-gerrymandering groups, including Fair Districts PA, once again sought support in Harrisburg. They demanded meetings with state lawmakers, convinced local county commissioners to sign resolutions supporting the measure, and filled the editorial pages of local newspapers with letters explaining why the reform was a good idea.
But last week, the General Assembly was suspended for the summer without adopting Plan B.
Lawmakers are expected to return to Harrisburg in September, when the US Census Bureau finally provides the demographics needed to determine how political constituencies are drawn.
As they begin the process of drawing the districts that will influence politics in Pennsylvania over the next 10 years, they will do so without codified rules, advocates say, will help deter gerrymandering, when district boundaries on a map are manipulated for the benefit of one political party rather than another.
Carol Kuniholm, president of Fair Districts PA, said on Monday that this was the last time the independent commission was at a standstill, “except now we’re really at a stalemate.”
“They have indeed made it very, very clear that there will be no redistribution reform,” she said. “I would say if they didn’t do it now, they won’t.”
Without guarantees in state law, supporters of reform rely on verbal promises from those responsible for the process, who say they will hold public hearings, allow citizens to submit their own cards, and explain how and why the districts were drawn. – all the requirements that have been included in the legislation.
Pennsylvania’s congressional districts, which are reduced from 18 to 17 due to low population growth, will be drawn by the GOP-controlled legislature and must be approved by Democratic Governor Tom Wolf.
The maps of the State House and Senate are drawn by a legislative redistribution commission made up of party leaders in Harrisburg and an appointed president. The chairman of this redistribution round, Mark Nordenberg, said last week that he wanted citizens to be able to submit suggestions through the redistribution site.
He also said that public hearings would be held in July and August before census data became available, and that the commission would “almost certainly” hold hearings again “after census data has been received and digested.” .
Good government groups like the Committee of the Seventy and the PA Common Cause have hailed the choice of the Nordenberg State Supreme Court – a former Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh – as a victory, saying that they expect him to keep his word and deliver righteous cards.
The commission has held hearings in the past to solicit comment, but that’s another story for the Congress map, which has traditionally been designed in secret and presented to the public at the last minute.
Ten years ago, when Republicans controlled both the legislature and the governor’s office, the map was publicly presented and passed within a week. The state Supreme Court then rejected it, saying the Republicans had unconstitutionally maximized the number of seats in Congress for their party while disadvantaging the Democrats.
The court-ordered new map saw Democrats win four seats in Congress in 2018.
Kuniholm said his group is building on political checks and balances already in place that could result in fairer maps, unlike states where one party controls the entire redistribution process.
Wolf, who has supported clipping reform in the past, could veto any congressional card he doesn’t like, and the Democratic-controlled state Supreme Court could reject the congressional card or them. General Assembly cards and appoint a third party to produce new cards without input from lawmakers.
Kuniholm said it’s something party leaders in Harrisburg want to avoid at all costs, which means there’s still a chance they’ll come to a bipartisan deal on cards that follow the criteria Fair Districts PA considered impartial: that the districts be roughly equal in population, keep the localities together and reflect the needs of the Pennsylvanians.
To that end, Kuniholm said members of his group plan to come in droves to meetings, present their own cards and convince lawmakers to do it their own way.
“Our goal is to say, ‘We know what a good card looks like, and we’re going to ask for a good card,'” she said.
Although the supported Fair Districts PA reform was not passed by the General Assembly, an amended version was approved by a Senate committee last week. An amendment, introduced by Senator David Argall (R., Schuylkill), removed the proposed boundaries on how the General Assembly’s own districts are drawn.
Instead, it prioritizes an equal distribution of population and avoids divisions among municipalities on the congressional map rather than considering all standards – including compactness and keeping communities of interest together – with equal weight.
We don’t know what partisan effect this might have on the state. Democrats tend to cluster in urban areas, while Republicans are spread across the state’s rural counties.
Take Pittsburgh, for example. The city of about 300,000 people can fit into an entire Congressional District – each of Pennsylvania’s 17 districts will have about 752,443 people – and votes strongly Democratic, while outside the urban area the rest of the county d’Allegheny tends to vote Republican.
If Pittsburgh were to be divided into three congressional districts, two of them would likely be Democrats. But if the city were fully contained within a strong Democratic district by Argall’s criteria, surrounding districts might have a greater chance of electing Republican candidates.
Argall, whose committee will be among the first to vote on the new congressional map, has promised transparency in the process, saying he will hold hearings this summer to get public input on what districts should look like , although they have not yet been scheduled.
Senator Lisa Boscola, a Democrat from Northampton County who drafted the guardrail legislation of 2021, said last week that she was not surprised her bill was amended to omit reforms to own districts of state legislators.
Now, she hopes lawmakers will keep their promises of transparency and public participation.
“If they don’t, I think you are going to witness an uprising of the grassroots organizations,” she said.
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