Pa. missed the boat on gerrymandering reform. Here’s how voting rights suffered | Thursday Morning Coffee

July 9, 2020 7:07 am

(Capital-Star file)

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

With the Legislature officially on summer recess, and with it, any chance to pass meaningful redistricting reform pretty much out the window, a new report drives home the damage that partisan gerrymandering can inflict on voting rights.

The report, by the progressive Center for American Progress, is the latest in a series examining how hyper-partisan districts can impact progress on issues ranging from gun violence prevention to access to health insurance. This year, for instance, the Republican-controlled General Assembly stifled most anti-gun violence bills, including a so-called “Red Flag” law that enjoyed bipartisan support.

That means that the next round of legislative and congressional maps will be drawn the same way they always have been — by a lawmaker-run commission in the case of the former, and an act of the Legislature in the latter. And if past is prologue — and it is — a round of expensive and lengthy court fights before the maps are finally ratified.

Below, a look at how hyper-partisan districts have impacted Pennsylvanians’ access to the ballot box.

Voters line up at a polling place on Election Day. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

While lawmakers have passed a suite of voting reforms, including no-excuse mail-in balloting that has proven incredibly popular, other measures have remained stymied, the report found.

From the analysis:

“In 2019, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed a bill largely along party lines—111-88 in the state House and 31-19 in the Senate—that would have prohibited straight-ticket voting. Only four Democratic members in the House and three in the Senate voted in favor of the bill.

“Many Democrats warned that the rule change would cause longer lines and confusion at the polls, placing a particular burden on “under-resourced polling locations,” predominantly those located in communities of color. In 2018, a federal judge blocked a similar law in Michigan because it was expected to disproportionately affect African Americans.

“Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) vetoed the bill, but it came at a cost: He also had to forgo $90 million in needed upgrades for the state’s voting machines, to which the Legislature had attached the provision banning straight-ticket voting.

“Ultimately, Gov. Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature entered into an agreement to eliminate straight-party voting in favor of new voting reforms and $90 million in election funding. The compromise legislation was opposed by a majority of Democrats who remained concerned over potential disenfranchisement.

“Compared with other states, Pennsylvania has been slow to adopt vital policies that help Americans register to vote and cast ballots that count.  The state lacks same-day voter registration and automatic voter registration. Democratic lawmakers have introduced bills to establish these and other pro-voter policies that, if adopted, would significantly expand the ability of Pennsylvania residents to make their voices heard.

“[Wolf]  has similarly expressed his support for automatic and same-day registration. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe these policies will be adopted given that, for most of the past decade, the gerrymandered Legislature has worked to erect—rather than remove—barriers to voting.”

In a July 2 Capital-Star op-EdCarol Kuniholm of the reform group Fair Districts PA, blasted lawmakers for their failure to pass redistricting reform. But she said activists will continue to press the case.

“Unless our legislators return this summer, it is now too late to amend the Pennsylvania constitution, and institute an independent commission for legislative redistricting in time for 2021,” she wrote. “But there are other possible remedies: strong guardrails on the current redistricting processes, immediate attention to legislative rules that put far too much power in the hands of too few leaders.

“But what we want most: a change of heart, a course correction in the halls of Harrisburg. Voters’ voices should matter to every Pennsylvania legislator. All Pennsylvania voters, not just the party faithful in a handful of leaders’ home districts,” Kuniholm wrote.

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.