Baer: Gerrymandering: Is Pennsylvania waking up to the issue?

I’m sure you’re aware that, when it comes to reform or almost any sort of awakening, the Pennsylvania legislature has institutional narcolepsy.

So don’t be surprised when its general response to efforts to end gerrymandering is great gaping yawns.

After all, the longstanding, democracy-draining practice of carving up legislative districts to benefit one party or the other is the featherbed in our system of self-protective politics, in which lawmakers luxuriate.

Gerrymandering rigs the system to favor those who run it.

It eliminates competition (in 2016, half our legislative races had only one candidate). It preserves incumbency and ensures the status quo. And our pols like nothing more than wallowing in status quo.

That’s why, unlike other states, we’ve got no term limits (15 states do), no citizen initiative or referendum (26 states do), no recall of state officials (19 states do), all despite our cradle-of-democracy heritage.

We the people might want reform. Our political class does not. It wants preservation of power.

So we get districts drawn to protect or punish that have nothing to do with public service and everything to do with politics.

Suburban Philly’s Seventh Congressional District cuts through five counties and several municipalities and looks like a Hermann Rorschach inkblot. Philly’s 197th state House  District resembles a horse made of Lego bricks. The city of Reading is stuck on the edge of a vast rural district, diminishing its voice and odds of decent representation.

An international study (the 2016 Electoral Integrity Project) says we’re the third-worst gerrymandered state, behind Maryland and Wisconsin.

And since gerrymandering can fill legislatures with hard-right and hard-left ideology, there’s little question it contributes to the policy paralysis common in Pennsylvania.

Ah, but now, amid new (often angry) citizen interest in government and politics, there’s a move to push gerrymandering off our list of political problems; there even are sparks of hope behind it.

There’s the nonpartisan Fair Districts PA crossing the state, drawing big crowds, backed by the Committee of Seventy, Common Cause, and others, including the conservative Commonwealth Foundation.

There’s bipartisan-sponsored Senate Bill 22 (Democrat Lisa Boscola, of Lehigh County; Republlican Mario Scavello, of Monroe County) to take redistricting away from politicians and hand it to an independent citizen commission.

And there’s federal court action suggesting gerrymandering could be in trouble.

Still, as Committee of Seventy boss David Thornburgh puts it, “The hill is steep, the time is short, and the rock we’re trying to move is large.”

Change requires a constitutional amendment. That means legislation passed in two successive two-year sessions in time to become law, if approved by voters, before the next round of redistricting after the 2020 census.

Last session, Boscola’s citizen commission bill (introduced in 2015) sat untouched in the Senate State Government Committee: no votes, no nothing.

But the committee's chairman, Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon County), tells me that this year, “We’re going to give it full due diligence (including public hearings). … I’m a fan of redistricting reform.”

Maybe citizen interest is causing waves.

Even if not, a federal case is underway in Maryland. A Wisconsin federal court in November struck down that state’s redistricting as an “unconstitutional gerrymander.” And Philadelphia Public Interest Law Center lawyer Ben Geffen has been contacted by a number of groups since the Wisconsin ruling and is “actively analyzing options, including litigation” in Pennsylvania.

Anti-reformers argue that no commission can be truly independent, that the legislature itself is a citizen commission, and the reform effort is sore-loser Democratic whining.

But almost any group is more independent than hyper-partisan lawmakers in office because of gerrymandering. And any broken political system is or should be of nonpartisan concern.

Advocacy groups and federal courts focused on gerrymandering could awaken real reforms – unless, of course, our legislature continues hitting the snooze button.