JUST A FEW days ago, two Philadelphia Democrats acted to suppress votes in the House and Senate State Government committees on redistricting reform.
Redistricting is the most important governmental process people notice only once every 10 years, when they realize their legislative districts have been tortured into an even more bizarre shape than they were before, and their counties, townships, cities, and boroughs have been sliced and diced to suit the needs of legislators who want to pick their preferred voters.
Rep. Babette Josephs, chair of the House committee, pulled H.B. 2420, a major redistricting bill, from the agenda. Sen. Anthony Williams moved successfully to table a similar bill and amendment in the Senate committee that would also have made redistricting less partisan and protective of incumbency.
Both legislators assert that because Robert Zech, the director of the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau, which is charged in H.B. 2420 with administering redistricting, believes his staff lacks expertise to carry out the process and expresses anxiety that redistricting would "directly involve partisan politics [and] compromise the reputation of the Bureau." Why should nearly 12 million Pennsylvanians continue to live in the second most gerrymandered state in the United States?
Gerrymandering makes it harder for citizens to connect with their legislators, who may show up only at election time, and harder for challengers to unseat incumbents. It serves the interests of a small number of politicians by making them less accountable to the voters.
The decision to block reform is ridiculous. First, in Iowa, the model for nonpartisan redistricting, one Legislative Services attorney and one computer specialist, and a temporary data worker, carry out the process every decade.
If Pennsylvania, because of its more complex geography, were to map fairly, the LRB would hire experts from one of Pennsylvania's many colleges and universities. That's been the assumption of Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and Rep. Samuelson, HB 2420's prime sponsor.
Second, the whole point of HB 2420 is to remove partisanship. The criteria for redistricting explicitly rules out partisan considerations like voting records and addresses of incumbents and their potential challengers. In addition, the transparency of the process makes it easy to demonstrate a lack of partisan bias.
Josephs, in an attempt to "explain" her decision has:
* Raised the specter of "a bureaucrat making hundreds of critical decisions," which is simply false. HB 2420 requires both consultation with an advisory commission and publication of all communications dealing with redistricting, in addition to public hearings and a clear-cut avenue for legal challenges. Apparently Josephs and Williams prefer the current system, in which critical decisions are made by entrenched political leaders who are not accountable to the general electorate because they don't run in the districts they have disemboweled, but in their own carefully crafted fiefdoms (e.g., Rep. John Perzel).
_ Told several people that she doesn't think HB 2420 can pass. But the bill has 94 co-sponsors, far more than any similar bill introduced any time in the last 20 years and only nine votes short of passage. If she doesn't let it out of committee, it certainly won't pass, but the bill's supporters are willing to work with her on the details of the bill - if she could only be explicit about what she wants.
* Expressed a half-hearted commitment to "examining alternative proposals." If she means that, she could put HB 84, Rep. Tangretti's redistricting bill, on the State Government Committee calendar as well as H.B. 2420 and give interested committee members a chance to discuss, amend, and vote on them. HB 84 does not utilize the LRB but creates an independent temporary bureau, established by a bipartisan, appointed committee, for redistricting. The bill avoids every element of HB 2420 that Josephs dislikes. So why has it been languishing in committee since Jan. 30, 2007? HB 2420 itself can probably be improved upon, but that will only happen if people press Josephs to work with reformers to give Pennsylvanians fairer representation in the next decade's elections. *
Lora Lavin is vice president for issues and action of the League of Women Voters of Pa. Sandra Christianson is vice chairwoman for issues, Common Cause/PA.