Redistricting reformers have one more shot at preventing a 2021 gerrymander

By: - March 7, 2019 6:31 am

Pennsylvania’s old congressional map was ruled an unconstitutional gerrymander by the state Supreme Court last year. (US Government)

The fight to change how Pennsylvania draws its political boundaries is going into overtime.

Last year, advocates for reform mourned after state lawmakers blew a supposedly hard deadline to change the process before 2021, when there will be another round of redistricting — the redrawing of state legislative and congressional maps to match population shifts.

But advocates and legislators now believe they have a small window to defeat partisan gerrymandering — or the redrawing of district lines to maximize political advantage — in the commonwealth.

It’s been a hot topic for politicos since the state’s majority-Democrat Supreme Court threw out Pennsylvania’s old congressional map last year.

The ruling caused some hard feelings, including an impeachment proposal from Republicans against Supreme Court justices. But it also lit a fire under advocates and lawmakers to do something.

Political ‘mischief making’

Currently, there are two separate processes to draw political maps in Pennsylvania.

Under state law, the Legislature draws Pennsylvania’s congressional map and sends it to the governor for his signature.

Meanwhile, the legislative map is drawn by a five-person commission, made up of the four floor leaders in the state House and Senate. They pick a fifth member, or the state Supreme Court picks for them. The process is laid out in the state Constitution.

This commission has the final say on the lines for state House and Senate districts. Rank-and-file members do not vote on it and the governor has no chance to veto.

“The way it is now, conceivably, an elected official can pick their district. That’s not the way this process is intended,” Rep. Tom Murt, R-Montgomery, said. “The process is still fraught with the potential for mischief making.”

The first attempt at revision last year passed the Senate with an unwelcome amendment, and died in the House after both parties threw sand in the legislative gears.

Similar attempts in the House died in the chamber’s State Government Committee, where former Republican chairman, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe of Butler County, stymied reform.

It seemed like the end of the line for advocates who want to change how legislative boundaries are drawn. That would require a constitutional amendment, a complicated process where lawmakers pass identical bills in two consecutive legislative sessions. Voters then get the final say in a statewide referendum.

But a legal re-reading of state law helped convince advocates and legislative leadership that they have one more shot at creating a new system in time for 2021.

Two bills, one commission

Two House members — Murt and Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton — have laid out a plan to draw state congressional and legislative maps by a commission made up of everyday people instead of elected lawmakers.

They are calling for an independent, 11-member commission picked at random from a pool of qualified applicants. Four Democrats, four Republicans, and three independents would be chosen to serve. Elected officials and staff, political operatives, and lobbyists would all be banned from participating.

Their legislation would also ban the use of voter registration data, add requirements for public hearings, and limit county splits for compactness.

The catch? They’re gonna need two bills and a Legislature willing to pick up the pace, according to Carol Kuniholm, executive director of Fair Districts PA.

The General Assembly would need to pass a standalone congressional bill this session, which would begin the process of creating an independent commission in time for 2021.

The other bill, which would deal with both congressional and legislative boundaries, would need to be passed this session and in the session after that.

If all goes according to plan, it would then be up to primary voters in 2021 to give a final seal of approval to the new system. Because of the first bill, an independent commission would already be in place — ready to go. 

While such a tight timeline goes against the, at times, glacial speed of Harrisburg, Kuniholm is counting on the public to help make the case.

“[Lawmakers] have to be motivated, and our argument is if they are paying attention they should be motivated,” she said.

Meanwhile, in the Senate

The Senate, which approved a redistricting bill last session, is also preparing to advance last year’s proposal — minus some controversial tweaks.

The bill that reached the floor is very similar to the House’s current plan but with a few adjustments — biggest among them, letting legislative leaders make redistricting commission appointments. Many states, including Arizona and Colorado, give legislative leaders some say.

Those changes were already controversial. Then the Senate tacked on a measure to create judicial districts for the state’s appellate judges, including the Supreme Court.

Democrats said the measure was an attack on judicial independence and turned against the bill. It eventually stalled in the House.

Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, a long time redistricting advocate, said her new bill this year won’t have the judicial language again. It will, however, let legislative leaders pick the commission.

She wants to see the reform pushed across the finish line, but is skeptical of the House’s approach.

A Harrisburg veteran since 1995, Boscola said legislative leaders have tried to strong-arm her into playing along with threats of drawing her out of her district.

If just a congressional fix passes, Boscola said, opponents of changing how legislative districts are drawn will “clap their hands, say they’re reformers, and they’ll never do something with the state House and Senate seats.”

What are the odds?

It’s still too early to tell how this will end up.

Both House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, have expressed interest in reform.

Senate State Government Committee Chairman Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, said he plans to vote Boscola’s redistricting bill out soon. He doesn’t have an exact timeline, but said it was “on the front burner.” 

Meanwhile, new House State Government Chair Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, expressed greater interest in changing the congressional map-making process than the state process in an earlier interview with the Capital-Star.

Folmer and Murt both cautioned that the starting bills are likely just the beginning, and whatever finally passes could look different. Murt added that he thinks  congressional reform alone might have a better shot of passing.

“The reform may not take the form of what Steve Samuelson or I have put forth exactly, but there may be some ideas our colleagues have that accomplish the same objective,” Murt said.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.