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Gerrymandering, 'political laser surgery,' stokes fresh ire, legal fights

On Wednesday, Commonwealth Court held a hearing on a lawsuit contending the 2011 congressional map for the state was gerrymandered by officials.

David Thornburgh of the Committee of Seventy discusses gerrymandering and political partisanship at the Pyramid Club
David Thornburgh of the Committee of Seventy discusses gerrymandering and political partisanship at the Pyramid ClubRead moreColt Shaw / Staff

The proposal — letting a nonpartisan citizens commission, rather than politicians, draw lines for electoral districts — isn't novel. It was presented by Carol Kuniholm, the executive director of Fair Districts PA, last week in Center City at a forum that focused on gerrymandering — a practice in which a party in power contorts legislative and congressional boundaries to its electoral advantage.

Complaints about gerrymandering, a name derived from a 19th century Massachusetts governor and U.S. vice president who was a notorious practitioner, date to nearly the founding of the republic, notes David Thornburgh, head of the nonpartisan political watchdog group the Committee of Seventy.

What is different these days is that the practices and the efforts to change them have reached perhaps unprecedented levels, said Thornburgh, who participated in that forum at the Pyramid Club, 52 floors above the streets of Center City, which included business and civic leaders.

And this has been a particularly brisk period.

Lawsuits have been filed all over the country, and the Pyramid Club session was held on the evening after the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on gerrymandering, and the night before the commonwealth considered a petition on redistricting.

"People are really fed up with how the parties have manipulated this process in a way that doesn't seem to be serving the people," Thornburgh said in an interview on Monday.

And Pennsylvania, a political battleground state, has become a battleground in the debate over gerrymandering.

"The more I learn, the more I'm convinced this really is a significant foundational problem for us in a way that it's not for a lot of other states," Kuniholm said at the forum.

Studies have documented that Pennsylvania is a national leader in gerrymandered districts. One classic example is the Seventh Congressional District outside Philadelphia, which bobs and weaves in and around townships and boroughs across multiple counties since it was redrawn following the 2010 census.

The district "just exploded into this grotesque shape," Thornburgh said. "It has become literally more offensive."

"I describe what the operatives are working with as political laser surgery." Thornburgh said in the interview.

He said that sophisticated software and mapping capabilities have made redistricting more insidious. And given the contentious political climate nationally, the issue has taken on greater meaning.

Action in the courts has accelerated.

On Wednesday, Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg held a hearing on a lawsuit, filed by the League of Women Voters, contending the 2011 U.S. congressional map for the state was gerrymandered.

The League is awaiting the court's decision, which is unlikely to come down anytime soon. And organizations nationwide are waiting for their own suits to pan out, too, said league President Susan Carty.

"We have to be hopeful, and we certainly look to our court systems to do what we believe is the right thing for the voters of Pennsylvania," Carty said. Regardless of outcome, "there's no doubt that we'll have to go forward and higher."

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University published a study in spring 2017, Kuniholm noted, that found that out of five measures used to study gerrymandering, Pennsylvania was the worst in two: Efficiency Gap, which is being discussed in the Gill v. Whitford case now before the Supreme Court, and Seats-to-Vote, which "compares the number of votes vs. the seats won."

In her presentation, Kuniholm called for an independent commission whose members would not include legislators, their spouses or their staffers. They would be members of both major parties as well as nonaligned voters. Their job would be to set the lines of electoral maps, rather than whichever party holds power at the time of redistricting. And the commission would not be allowed access to sophisticated mapping technology and data mining tools.

Thornburgh said at the forum that Pennsylvania's partisanship was having repercussions beyond politics.

"Hyper-partisan dysfunction is an enormous impediment to our international competitiveness," Thornburgh said. "Unless and until we can get a problem-solving, solution-oriented kind of response … we're going to be playing the game with our hands tied behind our back."

Thornburgh said he was keeping a close eye on the court cases now in play and the efforts to establish a bipartisan redistricting committee. But, he said, Pennsylvania is among the hardest states to pass a constitutional change legislatively.

"At this point, the smart bet would probably still be that this is a tough path to pursue," Thornburgh said. "But I think the reformers are absolutely in the game."

This story has been changed to correct whom the membership of the independent commission proposed by Kuniholm would consist of.