Time ran out in Harrisburg on bills that would have moved Pennsylvania toward the establishment of an independent citizens commission to draw voting district boundaries, thus ending the gerrymandering long practiced by whichever political party holds power. Now, it is no longer possible for the actions necessary to amend the state constitution — votes by two consecutive sessions of the state Legislature and a statewide referendum — to take place before Pennsylvania’s legislative districts are redrawn in 2021 with data from this year’s census. And so redistricting advocates are turning to other ideas to ensure as much impartiality, transparency and accountability as possible next year.
It shouldn’t be this hard.
It shouldn’t be this much work.
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.
The movement to establish an independent redistricting committee has incredible support.
And now it’s too late.
The bills had substantial bipartisan support. Lancaster County Republican state Sens. Ryan Aument and Scott Martin were among the co-sponsors of the Senate bills. Democratic state Rep. Mike Sturla of Lancaster was among the dozens of co-sponsors of the House bills.
The bills had the endorsement of key stakeholders, including Fair Districts PA, a nonpartisan coalition of advocacy groups seeking to end gerrymandering.
“The bills that were constitutional amendments are dead,” Fair Districts PA co-founder Carol Kuniholm told Spotlight PA.
Pennsylvanians spoke, en masse, and no one answered.
When concerned citizens go through this much effort and show this much passion for making our democracy more just, they shouldn’t get the cold shoulder.
“Years of discussion, research, advocacy and civic engagement produced (these bills),” Amy Ruffo, of Lancaster, wrote in an early June letter to LNP | LancasterOnline as the point of no return approached.
“The state Legislature is not listening,” Ruffo wrote, with evident frustration. “What would it take to get a vote on these bills?”
She noted that the redistricting proposal had three committee hearings; the support of a poll indicating that two-thirds of Pennsylvanians favor an independent commission; more than 100,000 petition signatures; resolutions of support from 23 counties and more than 350 municipalities; and more than 500 published letters to the editor statewide. (Letters on this issue have been a mainstay of the LNP | LancasterOnline Opinion pages; Ruffo is hardly a lone voice.)
So why no vote?
Even if the bills had been voted on and rejected, that would have been a greater level of accountability from lawmakers than ignoring them altogether. We would have known where each elected official stood on gerrymandering.
And maybe that’s precisely why some lawmakers didn’t want to go on the record with a vote.
There is, of course, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Ruffo noted that the state Legislature has been “necessarily distracted” by its need to address the pandemic, but added that “a number of bills unrelated to the epidemic have been rapidly developed and presented for a vote.”
We’d go further than that.
We find it outrageous that some lawmakers — instead of listening and voting on legislation that would give real power to the people — have focused on their own power grabs in recent days.
Example No. 1: Republican lawmakers (and a handful of Democrats) this week “cleared the first hurdle to get a constitutional amendment on a future ballot that would allow the General Assembly to unilaterally end a disaster declaration,” Spotlight PA’s Cynthia Fernandez reported. This move came after the Republican-controlled Legislature lost its legal battle to “wrest control of Pennsylvania’s coronavirus response from (Democratic) Gov. Tom Wolf.”
Never mind that we think it’s potentially disastrous to give the General Assembly an easy mechanism to unilaterally end any governor’s disaster declaration. Here’s our question: How was there time to vote on this newly crafted legislation, but no time to vote on popular and extremely time-sensitive legislation related to redistricting?
Example No. 2: State Republicans “completed the first step Wednesday to amend the state constitution and potentially undo a Democratic majority on the state’s highest court,” The Associated Press reported.
Sen. Aument said the need to overhaul the court and create geographical districts in which a candidate must reside gained urgency following Wolf's court victories over Republicans during the pandemic. “I’m ever more convinced that we must do all we can to ensure that the voices of the people of this commonwealth are heard and the people have full confidence in our system of government and in our institutions,” Aument said, per the AP report.
The voices of the people were heard when those state Supreme Court judges were elected. The better issue to tackle is whether judges should be elected at all. Right now, though, we’d simply ask this: If there was time for this constitutional amendment, and if we must, in Aument’s words, “ensure that the voices of the people of this commonwealth are heard,” then why was there no floor vote on an independent redistricting commission?
It strikes us as disingenuous, to say the least.
The encouraging news for the many proponents of redistricting reform is that Fair Districts PA isn’t wasting time lamenting what could have been.
“Advocates are now turning their attention to Plan B, a bill that would keep lawmakers at the helm of the process but check them through new transparency requirements,” Spotlight PA’s Fernandez reported July 8. “It would also institute new rules that would prohibit the most egregious practices, like disregarding county and city boundaries to pack voters into a single district.”
The legislation to accomplish these goals is state House Bill 2638, which was introduced by state Rep. Wendi Thomas — a Republican — last month. Her measure would limit the number of times legislators drawing legislative and congressional maps can split a county, putting a check on one of the worst aspects of gerrymandering.
“The measure would also codify into law years-long efforts by grassroots groups like Fair Districts PA to make the redistricting process more transparent,” Fernandez reported. “Videos of meetings and the underlying data used to create or evaluate maps would be made available on a website, and public hearings would be held several times before and after lawmakers finalize the plans.”
An independent citizens commission remains the best way to handle future redistricting, but Thomas’ measure is a strong one and the best we can hope for right now.
But it, too, must get through Harrisburg. If the state Legislature acts before the end of January and Wolf signs the bill, these new rules limiting gerrymandering and bolstering transparency would be in place when lawmakers begin drawing the new maps next year, Fernandez reported.
This bill must pass.
It cannot languish in committee.
If lawmakers are serious about listening to the people then they must get Rep. Thomas’ bill to the floor for a vote. No more excuses. No more running out the clock.