Pa. House State Government Chairperson Seth Grove, R-York (Facebook/City & State Pa.).
By Patrick Beaty
Republicans in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives are hopping mad about a new redistricting plan that would force some of their members to run against Republican colleagues in redrawn districts. The preliminary plan approved last month by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC) also threatens to break the lop-sided majority House Republicans have long enjoyed as a direct result of gerrymandered district maps.
Most analysts agree that the LRC’s proposed House map is a major improvement over the current map in just about every way you look at it.
The plan divides fewer communities, creates more compact districts that reflect the reality of where population shifts have occurred in the past decade, and offers racial and language minorities new opportunities to translate their growing populations into more effective political power. And it achieves all of that while also producing a map that is much more reflective of Pennsylvania’s statewide electorate, which is pretty evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.
Republicans suddenly find themselves in a very strange place – the party that has dominated the legislative branch of state government for so long is powerless to stop their gerrymandered majority from unraveling right before their eyes.
Or so it seems.
If there is but one lesson we all should have learned by now about Republican leaders in Harrisburg, it is this. Power is everything, and almost nothing is out of bounds in pursuit of power. Even, if necessary, amending the state Constitution.
This week, House State Government Committee Chairperson Seth Grove, R-York, introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to replace the five-member LRC with a new 11-member “citizens commission” made up of voters who could not be government employees, candidates for political office or lobbyists. Sounds a little like the kind of independent redistricting commission reform advocates have been demanding for the past five years. But only a little as it turns out.
The Grove bill – currently scheduled for vote in his committee just days after being filed – is not even close to real redistricting reform for a lot of reasons. There are all kinds of problems with the makeup of the proposed “citizens commission.” The most glaring of which are the fact that the vast majority of appointments would be made by leaders of the General Assembly – making them by definition NOT an independent commission – and the complete lack of participation by independent and third-party voters.
But the biggest problem lies not in the details of the commission or how it would operate in drawing new maps for the state Senate and House. None of that really matters in the end because the whole thing is a sham designed only to create the illusion of reform while transferring the real power over redistricting to the legislature itself – and soon.
Here’s how it would work in five easy steps.
Step One: Republican majorities in the Senate and House pass HB 2207 this year with no support among the minority Democrats (Governor Wolf also cannot block it with a veto because it’s a constitutional amendment which doesn’t require his signature).
Step Two: As required for all changes to the state constitution, they pass the same bill again in the following session of the General Assembly. The key here is to do it early enough in 2023 so it can go before the voters at the May municipal primary election when turnout will be low, but Republican voters will hopefully already be highly motivated for lots of other reasons.
Step Three: The voters approve the constitutional change because a “citizens commission” does sound like a good thing and because for some reason voters almost never vote against constitutional amendments.
Step Four: The new commission is appointed within a month and begins work drawing new maps to replace the maps approved in 2022 by the LRC. This brings us to about the beginning of September 2023 when the new commission must approve a preliminary redistricting plan by a two-thirds vote. Chances of that happening are slim and none because the commission is stacked with partisan appointees with no incentive to compromise.
Finally, Step Five: Because the bi-partisan “citizens commission” has failed to pass a preliminary plan by the deadline – just 60 days after they were appointed – the Senate and House take over and each pass a final district map for their own chamber. Not by a two-thirds vote, but by a simple majority of Republicans.
And there you have it. Everything returns to normal when Republicans are elected in large numbers in the November 2024 general election based on their newly drawn maps. Crisis averted.
You could almost admire this scheme for its audacity, if it was not so outrageous.
By the end of this month, the LRC will have voted on a final plan to redraw Pennsylvania’s legislative district maps. All indications are that those maps will be more fair than current maps by just about every reasonable measure. Some House and Senate Republicans will not be happy. They should not insult the voters and demean themselves with desperate measures to hang onto power for its own sake.
Patrick Beaty is the legislative director of Fair Districts PA, an all-volunteer, non-partisan, grass roots organization dedicated to reform of Pennsylvania’s redistricting process for both congressional and state legislative districts.
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