“Lawmakers are still in charge of drawing Pennsylvania’s political maps, but good-government advocates say a bill making its way through the state Senate would check the most egregious gerrymandering practices and boost public transparency when the process begins again next year,” Spotlight PA’s Cynthia Fernandez reported for an article that was also published in the Sept. 27 Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline. Spotlight PA is a nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with news organizations including LNP Media Group.
This summer, much to our frustration, the clock expired in Harrisburg on needed bills that would have moved Pennsylvania toward the establishment of an independent citizens commission for drawing voting district boundaries. It could have ended the undemocratic gerrymandering that has long been practiced by whichever political party holds power in the state.
Because time ran out, we missed the opportunity to amend the state constitution — which requires votes by two consecutive sessions of the state Legislature and a statewide referendum — prior to Pennsylvania’s legislative districts being redrawn in 2021 with data from this year’s census.
It dashed efforts that had been undertaken by nonpartisan advocates seeking an end to gerrymandering.
“It shouldn’t be this much work,” we wrote in a July editorial. “When Pennsylvania residents crusade tirelessly, go through all the proper channels and work with lawmakers to craft legislation that attracts numerous co-sponsors, they should at the very least have the courtesy of seeing their proposals come to the floor for a vote in Harrisburg.”
It was an incredibly discouraging moment. A failure to listen to the people.
But reform advocates, to their credit, didn’t waste time crying over what could have been.
Key stakeholders, led by Fair Districts PA, turned their attention to what can still be accomplished this year.
We must support those efforts and hope the General Assembly doesn’t once again run out the clock.
Fernandez described the new reform efforts in her Spotlight PA article. The legislation is termed the Legislative and Congressional Redistricting Act. It was introduced by Republican state Rep. Wendi Thomas of Bucks County as House Bill 2638 in late June. Virtually identical legislation was introduced soon thereafter as Senate Bill 1242, with bipartisan primary co-sponsors — state Sens. Tom Killion, R-Delaware, and Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton. We’re glad that Republican state Sen. Scott Martin of Martic Township is also a co-sponsor of the Senate bill.
The legislation, as Fernandez explains, requires lawmakers handling redistricting “to hold public meetings, make underlying data available for analysis, and set strict criteria for drawing congressional and legislative maps. Lawmakers, for example, would not be able to disregard county and city boundaries to pack voters into a single district — one of the problems the state Supreme Court identified in 2018, when it overturned and later redrew the state’s congressional map.”
Currently, the state House and Senate maps are drawn up by a five-member commission that includes Democratic and Republican leaders from the state Legislature, plus a chairperson chosen by those lawmakers. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court chooses the chairperson if party leaders can’t agree on one themselves. This system that has allowed partisan politics and gerrymandering to dominate the redistricting process over the years.
Fair Districts PA praises the pending legislation on its website, noting that it “introduces clear, measurable map-drawing criteria designed to prevent partisan gerrymandering and promote accountability to voters,” creates “a user-friendly website for dissemination of data, proposed maps and analyses, public comments and other information free of charge to the public” and requires multiple statewide public hearings — which would be subject to the open-meetings law and be livestreamed.
We support those accountability measures and additional changes that would, according to Fair Districts PA, allow any Pennsylvania resident to submit a full or partial redistricting map for consideration, create protections against discrimination in the mapping process, and explicitly prohibit “district plans designed to protect incumbents or to unfairly discriminate against political parties.”
All of these aims could have been better accomplished via a truly independent citizens commission for redistricting, which was long the hope of Fair Districts PA and this editorial board.
But that ship has sailed. The best must not become the enemy of the better. These are compromise measures well worth embracing.
If both chambers pass this legislation by the end of the year and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signs it, “the new rules would be in place when lawmakers begin drawing the (legislative) maps in 2021,” Fernandez wrote.
Lawmakers must get this legislation to the floor for a full vote this time. These necessary reforms must not languish in committee.
We repeat what we wrote in July: “No more excuses. No more running out the clock.”