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Redistricting process is focus of five Pa. bills

HARRISBURG - The silhouettes of Pennsylvania's congressional and legislative districts appear almost comical - their borders zigzagging as if drawn on an Etch-a-Sketch.

HARRISBURG - The silhouettes of Pennsylvania's congressional and legislative districts appear almost comical - their borders zigzagging as if drawn on an Etch-a-Sketch.

Some people are now arguing that elections would be more competitive - and elected officials more responsive - if the districts were made as compact as possible and political preservation played no part.

"This is your democracy being stolen from you, so people should be outraged," said State Rep. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), who sponsored one of at least five pending bills that address redistricting.

Gov. Rendell and the state League of Women Voters are among those who support the idea, but there has been little tangible progress.

Time is a factor, because changing the system would require a constitutional amendment, and redistricting legislation would probably have to pass next summer to be in place for the next census.

The chairwoman of the House State Government Committee said she intended to hold hearings, but made no promises about when.

"When you look at these districts, they make very little sense, congressional ones and ours," said Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.). "Our process is better but not as good as it could be, perhaps."

Pennsylvania has separate systems for drawing up congressional and legislative districts. The congressional map has to pass the House and Senate and be signed by the governor. For the General Assembly, the four floor leaders and a quasi-independent chairman draw the lines, subject to Supreme Court review.

The existing system was adopted during the 1968 constitutional convention in response to a series of battles over redistricting in that decade. It shifted the power of legislative redistricting from the General Assembly as a whole to a few leaders, which has led to accusations that the map protects allies or settles old scores.

The state's shrinking and shifting population has forced many difficult and unpopular decisions. Pennsylvania's U.S. House delegation of 19 is barely half its peak in the 1930s; it is projected to drop another seat after 2010.

In the legislature, growth in the Poconos, the Philadelphia suburbs, and the lower Susquehanna River basin drew seats away from the west in 2001, and those trends appear to be continuing.

Scott Casper, the House Democrats' specialist on redistricting since the 1971 reapportionment, said the process is not as easy to manipulate for partisan reasons as some think.

First, the drafters start with the old maps and are under a lot of pressure from incumbents and their constituents to minimize changes.

Another major factor is the need for population parity: House districts consist of about 60,000 people, Senate districts 250,000. Drafters also need to consider geographic features such as rivers, county boundaries, and whether communities within a district share common interests.

Finally, there is the fact that very few areas have Democrats and Republicans in roughly equal proportions.

"They can hand me a keyboard and say, 'OK, Scott, knock yourself out. Draw a Democratic district in the rural part of Lancaster County,' " Casper said. "It can't be done."

That is not to say manipulation never occurs.

Rep. John Perzel's district in Philadelphia connects GOP strongholds in a gnarled, upside-down-U shape, stretching the meaning of


. The district probably would look much different had he not been a member of the 2001 reapportionment commission as the House Republican leader.

In the legislature, there is not exactly a groundswell of support for turning over the system to an independent commission, and last year's election bolster the case for the status quo. Twenty-four incumbents lost, suggesting that even an aggressively gerrymandered district can provide limited protection against determined voters.