LAST MONTH, Rep. John Perzel was charged with 82 counts of fraud, conspiracy, and theft for his illegal use of tax dollars for political activity. However, his real power play - manipulating the redistricting process to protect himself - was completely legal.

In 2000, Perzel experienced something rare for an incumbent politician: he almost lost. Two years later, he won by more than 14,000 votes.

His trick was not winning over the voters who had supported his opponent, but something much simpler: He redrew his legislative district to include more registered Republicans.

(For a before and after look at Perzel's 172nd district, see www.ourmoneyphilly.com)

Welcome to the wonderful world of redistricting in Pennsylvania. The process for drawling legislative boundaries is rigged to protect powerful incumbents and limits the number of competitive elections in our state.

Here is how redistricting works: Every 10 years, Pennsylvania redraws congressional and legislative districts based on the census population count. A five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission, which is comprised of the leaders of the four caucuses and a mutually agreed upon fifth member, runs the process.

That cozy group works together to draw districts to their political advantage. They study demographic data, and assign voters with similar political beliefs to the same district. That leads to districts with crazy borders and no logical geography. The leaders also use other information - like income, race, and gender - to predict voting behavior. The result: very few districts with an equal mix of Democrats and Republicans.

That means we have very few competitive elections and incumbents rarely lose. According to a report from the Institute for Money in State Politics, 94.1 percent of incumbents in Pennsylvania were re-elected in 2004. That's much higher than the national average of 78 percent. The lack of turnover explains Pennsylvania's entrenched political culture.

The process also bolsters the influence of already powerful legislative leaders. In addition to protecting incumbents, the redistricting process allows caucus leaders to retaliate against members of their own party who have fallen out of favor. For example, Rep. Ralph Kaiser's district was eliminated in 2001 after he angered state Rep. Bill DeWeese.

Redistricting is also a disaster for efficient government. Gerrymandered districts often include multiple townships and municipalities, making it hard for any state representative to effectively work with other government officials.

In a perfect world, redistricting would be handled by a non-partisan commission or office; that's how it's done in other states. Such a radical move would take an amendment to the Pennsylvania constitution, and couldn't realistically happen before 2011. However, the Legislature could restrict how the Legislative Reapportionment Commission operates. For example, the General Assembly could forbid the commission to use political data to draw districts. Or, lawmakers could require legislative leaders to appoint neutral commissioners as their designees. Gov. Rendell, in his recent call for reform, says he wants the second option.

Why should the power to change the redistricting process be controlled by the very people who benefit from the system? Tell your lawmakers you want them to put down their pencils and stop drawing their own victories. *