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Redistricting debates in Pa.

HARRISBURG - After nearly losing to a political rookie in 2000, then-House Majority Leader John Perzel found a way to survive in elections to come: he had his Northeast Philadelphia district redrawn.

HARRISBURG - After nearly losing to a political rookie in 2000, then-House Majority Leader John Perzel found a way to survive in elections to come: he had his Northeast Philadelphia district redrawn.

The result resembled a jigsaw puzzle scattered on the floor, with the pieces containing the maximum number of increasingly scarce city Republicans - people likely to vote for a guy like him. The GOP legislator has not faced a close race since.

Or take the 1991 case of State Sen. Frank Pecora, who woke one morning shocked to find that his district in the Pittsburgh suburbs had been uprooted and replanted 230 miles east in Chester County.

Such is the power of redistricting, the once-a-decade remapping of legislative and congressional boundaries based on fresh federal census numbers.

In Pennsylvania, political leaders control the process, allocating residents by party and voting patterns to help re-elect themselves and incumbents loyal to them and punish those who are not.

Now, public interest groups are trying to change the process, which they argue is rife with gerrymandering, and replace it with one that will remove self-interested political decisions from the equation

"The way it works now, instead of voters picking their representatives, representatives are picking their voters," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania.

Still, many in Harrisburg believe efforts for change likely will come up short before the next round of redistricting in 2011.

Changing Pennsylvania's redistricting system requires an amendment to the state constitution. That means that the General Assembly must pass legislation in two consecutive sessions, and then the public has to approve it in a statewide referendum.

To get it on the ballot in time for the next census, lawmakers must approve the legislation before they break for the summer next month. If they don't, a new redistricting system would have to wait until the census of 2020.

"They can make this happen if they want to," Bonita Hoke, executive director of the League of Women Voters in Pennsylvania, said of lawmakers. "They've got time. If they don't do it, it's because they failed to carry out their responsibility to give the public a better system than what it has now."

Gov. Rendell has endorsed a new system and last week urged the legislature to move on a redistricting bill.

Public interest groups say an ideal system would draw districts that are equal in population and that do not split towns – or, in some cases, even neighborhoods – into pieces.

That would make it difficult to use the so-called pack and crack method, in which party leaders pack a district with likely supporters of a favored candidate; or "crack" a town into pieces scattered among districts if voters threaten to oppose the dominant party's candidate.

Or, as in Pecora's case, they move a legislative district across the state as payback. GOP leaders blamed him for a vote that cost the party control of the Senate.

Pecora refused to give up his seat and ended up renting an apartment in his new legislative district until his term ended.

Under the current system, a panel of five controlled by the GOP and Democratic legislative leaders draws the district boundaries.

For congressional districts, changes are contained in a bill that must be passed by the entire legislature and signed by the governor in order to take effect.

"The first thing the current process does is locate the home address of the incumbent," said State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), explaining that the tactic allows incumbents to map out districts centered on their base of support.

Piccola chairs the State Government Committee, which last week endorsed a redistricting bill. That measure is among a half-dozen similar ones that vary somewhat but that generally call for a more independent panel to design the new maps.

State Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.), who chairs the House State Government Committee in which a redistricting bill has languished, said she was not against changing the system.

But she said she had't yet seen legislation that would create a fair and transparent system. And she doesn't have a solution, so no bill has moved out of her committee.

Compounding the problem is that legislators are now turning their attention almost exclusively to passing a state budget before the new fiscal year begins in July.

Long-time Harrisburg insiders acknowledge that changing the redistricting system in time is a longshot.

The reason is obvious, Piccola said.

"Why," he said, "would [legislative leaders] want to accelerate the taking of power away from them?"

Others, including the two men who control the Senate calendar - President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R., Blair) and Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Chester) - believe the current system works fine.

"If you look at the elections since the 2001 redistricting, both in the congressional and state legislative races, there has been a great deal of turnover," said Erik Arneson, Pileggi's spokesman. "So the notion that the current system doesn't provide for competitive election is fiction."

Tim Potts, cofounder of the public-interest group Democracy Rising PA, countered that the turnover in recent elections was a result of the public outcry that followed the 2005 pay raise that the legislature voted for itself. Lawmakers later repealed the raises.

"It shouldn't take the political equivalent of Hurricane Katrina to get competitive races - because that's what the pay raise was," Potts said.

In the last 40 years, 100 House seats - or just under half - have never changed party affiliation, he said.

"If you have a system that discourages competition in elections, I don't know what you call that," Potts said, "but I know you can't call it democracy."