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Local activists drawing the line on who gets to change congressional borders

Knocking on doors and pressuring local officials, activists are trying to change the way Pennsylvania draws its congressional and legislative boundaries as populations change and shift.

The maps that Amy Finkbiner was showing at the borough council meeting looked like so many random, ill-fitting puzzle pieces.

They depicted the outlines of U.S. congressional districts in Pennsylvania -- how they connected regions with little in common, how they carved up towns and even neighborhoods.

Her own town, Malvern, has found itself configured into three different, radically reshaped districts in the last three decades.

"It has been getting worse and worse," Finkbiner, a planning board member, said after her presentation. "So I think people have been getting more fed up."

Typically, municipal meetings such as this one last week are left to the likes of discussions about speed bumps and housing permits, and recognition of community members for their service.

These days, however, a fundamental issue of democracy is making the agenda list: redistricting.

Residents and advocates are asking just where congressional and legislative boundaries should be drawn to represent voters accurately – and who should draw them as populations change and shift.

For decades, activists and some lawmakers turned off by politicians' creating voting districts designed to keep their parties in power — gerrymandering — have tried and failed to change the redistricting process in Pennsylvania.

Now proponents of choosing a bipartisan committee of citizens — not politicians — to redraw district lines after each census are focusing on gathering support at the local level to agitate for change.

"If we take this to local boards, we can really create a wave, a groundswell, to force the legislature to enact real redistricting reform," said Jamie Mogil, who volunteers with Fair Districts PA, a coalition of good government and other nonprofit groups, to coordinate municipal-level support.

Rotary clubs, high schools, borough halls, and township buildings throughout the state have hosted discussions on gerrymandering, and have recruited citizens to the cause as part of Fair Districts PA's campaign. Nearly all of Pennsylvania's 67 counties have a leader coordinating municipal efforts.

Across the country, more than 20 state legislatures are considering creating commissions of citizens to redraw voting districts based on population and other objective data, said Marina K. Jenkins, an attorney with Washington-based Jenner & Block who is a redistricting specialist. California and Arizona have such commissions.

"It seems what's happening in Pennsylvania is part of a broader trend in this direction," said Jenkins, co-author of a 2010 paper on gerrymandering for the Yale Law and Policy Review.

"It's definitely something that has come to a point where something will need to happen to address the harm from extreme partisan gerrymandering," which, she said, "has been allowed to run rampant." The effect, she said, has been "to undermine what is the ultimate goal, which is to have a representative democracy."

So far in Pennsylvania, at least 18 local boards, including in Pittsburgh, Swarthmore, and Kennett Square, have passed resolutions since 2015. In next month's primary, voters can expect to see volunteers distributing redistricting handouts next to party volunteers sharing sample party ballots in a big push by members of Fair Districts PA.

Residents have been going door to door bearing petitions to present to their municipal officials, with the aim of having them pass redistricting resolutions. Although they would not be binding, advocates are hoping that the resolutions would put pressure on legislators to pass a bill calling for a constitutional amendment to change the system.

One challenge is getting the party in power — Republicans control the state House and Senate — to agree to a change that might not benefit it.

Val DiGiorgio, chairman of the state Republican Party, said, "We haven't taken an official position one way or the other," and said he was unaware of any local movement for redistricting reform.

"I've heard no one talk about this other than the media," he said.

Another challenge is shedding the perception that the Democrats, who stand to benefit, are leading the effort.

Marcel Groen, chairman of the state Democratic Party, blamed gerrymandering in large part for political polarization and called it the "most unethical and immoral aspect of American politics today."

"Redistricting as it stands right now in Pennsylvania, quite frankly, has been a total disgrace," he said.

As did DiGiorgio, Groen said he has not seen the redistricting reform legislation 10 state senators introduced in late February.

Eight Democrats and two Republicans sponsored a bill that replaces the commission that draws district maps, which now consists of two members each of the two major political parties and a fifth member appointed by the state Supreme Court.

The bill instead would create an 11-member commission made of four members each of the two largest political parties and three members unaffiliated with them. None of the 11 could be party officials, politicians, or relatives of politicians. They would have to have voted twice in the last three election cycles, and Democrats and Republicans would have to have been registered with their  parties for at least three years.

A sponsor, Sen. Mario Scavello (R., Monroe), declined to comment, while another, Sen. Patrick Browne (R., Lehigh), could not be reached for comment.

Wayne Braffman, a Democrat and a borough council member in Kennett Square, is overseeing the effort to get Chester County's 73 municipalities to pass redistricting resolutions. While collecting signatures, he said, two-thirds of people he talked to did not know what gerrymandering was.

"It took me two minutes to explain it, and they said, 'Where do I sign?' " he said. "And that was Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike."