Gerrymandering and Pennsylvania's democratic deficit

Pennsylvania’s Seventh Congressional District has been cited as an example of extreme partisan gerrymandering.

It’s one more measure of how desperate the legislature is to avoid reforms aimed at better politics and democracy in order to protect its privileged, over-paid, over-perked, under-performing self.

Tuesday’s call by voters’ rights group Fair Districts PA seeking at least a hearing on efforts to reform Pennsylvania’s nationally vilified gerrymandering is almost certain to be ignored.

And why?

No good reason other than the insulated culture of Harrisburg, a place that loves the status quo and serves mostly as a morgue for good ideas.

For example, separate bipartisan bills creating a citizens commission to draw lines for state and federal legislative districts without political consideration lay lifeless in state House and Senate committees — cadavers on the pallets of political progress.

This despite the fact Pennsylvania’s current legislative-drawn districts rank among the country’s worst, least democratic, and politically partisan.

A report earlier this year by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law says districts in Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania have “the most extreme levels of partisan bias” in the nation.

Fair Districts is fighting to change that.

Since January, according to cofounder Carol Kuniholm, the group has held 200-plus public meetings across the state, helped win passage of resolutions supporting gerrymander reform in 80 municipalities and 12 counties, and pushed legislation that attracted 97 bipartisan sponsors and cosponsors.

She argues, as she did during a Capitol news conference Tuesday, that when pols draw their own lines they’re really picking their own voters, rather than voters picking their pols.

And she says pols draw their lines because “their goals are to protect incumbents and to control the levers of power to set the legislative agenda in Harrisburg and our nation’s capital.”

She’s right.

The proof lies in responses from legislative leaders and key committee chairmen who either stonewall or say nothing at all about requests for hearings and votes.

Senate State Government Committee Chairman Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon) has had one of the reform bills in his committee since February.

He tells me he’s “not able” to hold a hearing because there’s a pending lawsuit (filed in June by the League of Women Voters and others challenging the constitutionality of the state’s current congressional map).

When I note the legislation in question is aimed at future maps and has nothing to do with the current map, he says, “I guess you could get 10 lawyers and 10 different answers.”

I guess.

But Folmer was elected in 2006 on a pledge to “advance government and political reforms.” Seems to me here’s an opportunity to honor that pledge.

Over in the House, State Government Committee Chairman Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler) also has a gerrymander reform bill. He didn’t respond to a request for comment. But Fair District folks say he told them there will be no hearing.

Ending or even reducing gerrymandering won’t solve all Pennsylvania’s problems, maybe not any of them. But it would make elections, especially congressional elections, more credible. And it might restore some level of public confidence in the political process.

At the very least, allowing reform efforts a real voice and actual votes can be a step toward closing the gap between what voters want and what lawmakers deliver.

Two years ago, I wrote about a Columbia University study, “The Democratic Deficit in the States,” measuring the percentage of times government policies mirror majority opinion.

States with the highest percentages were California, Kansas, and Louisiana. States with the lowest were West Virginia, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania.

I doubt much has changed since then, or since the study was released in 2011.

And I have no doubt that unless or until legislative leaders allow for airing of reform issues, nothing will change — ever.

 

 

 

 

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