Pennsylvania is one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation. That means politicians in Harrisburg pretty much choose who their voters are rather than, as is supposed to happen in a democracy, letting the voters choose their elected officials.
Two years ago, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that many congressional district maps were so artificially contorted, they violated the state’s constitution. When the governor and General Assembly failed to agree on new boundaries, the court stepped in and drew its own map. But the court’s solution was only a temporary fix, since redistricting will again take place next year based on the results of this year’s census. We could again see the majority party draw district lines based on the notion that they’re allowed to reap 10 years of favorable electoral bias for their trouble.
Both houses of the General Assembly need to act now to pass legislation that will begin to end such practices permanently. That requires action before the legislature’s summer recess, which is fast approaching for the end of June.
By starting the process to create an independent redistricting commission, Pennsylvania will be on a path to give the right to draw legislative districts to a nonpartisan, citizens’ authority, taking it out of the hands of whichever party happens to be in a majority in Harrisburg when redistricting is done.
If the legislature acts immediately, next year’s redistricting need not again be determined by the highly partisan interests of the party that holds the majority then. Both the House and Senate have had bills pending for over a year that would ask voters to approve the creation of an independent commission of citizens empowered to draw new district boundaries. Because its work would be impartial, transparent, and accountable, such a commission would surely create districts that represent actual communities rather than the entities that for too long have been the norm in Pennsylvania. These include “packed” districts, drawn to include the map makers’ most reliable supporters, and ”cracked” constituencies, drawn to split communities with majorities likely to vote for the other side.
In the Pennsylvania House, two relevant bills have been stuck in the House State Government Committee for more than a year despite, as documented by the group Fair Districts PA, promises by the committee chair, Garth Everett, to address them, and assurances by Majority Leader Bryan Cutler that bills with strong support will receive a vote. HB 22 would give the independent commission the power to draw both congressional and Pennsylvania’s legislative districts. HB 23 limits that authority to congressional redistricting.
Comparable bills in the Senate — SB 1022 and SB 1023 — propose identical legislation. They are still being ignored in spite of statements of support from both State Government Committee chair John DiSanto and Majority Leader Jake Corman.
The bills in question represent years of discussion, advocacy, research, and civic engagement. They have had more cosponsors than any others both in this session and the last. Yet, no vote has ever been taken to create an independent redistricting commission.
Here is why these bills need a vote before the summer recess: that allows the three months of advertising required before the upcoming November election, when they can first be considered by the electorate. If that happens, next year the identical bills must go through the same legislative approval so that they may appear on the May 21 primary ballot for a second referendum. That is the required procedure to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution and is what it will take to create a nonpartisan commission to do the work of redistricting every 10 years.
Onerous though this process is, it’s hard to imagine a more important political reform for our commonwealth. It’s time for Pennsylvania voters to be assured that all of them have a fair and equal ability to choose who will represent them in Congress and, hopefully, in Harrisburg as well.