Now's the time to press for real Pa. redistricting reform | John Baer

Pennsylvania Budget
Harrisburg can do more in the fight against gerrymandering. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

This week’s pair of same-day court actions on Pennsylvania gerrymandering — one-two jabs to the jaw of the state’s rigged-fight politics – set the stage for a title bout on lasting reform in choosing elected representatives.

After rounds of pricey, protracted litigation, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District and the U.S. Supreme Court cleared a path for less-partisan congressional districts for the 2018 and (barring some future legal bombshell) 2020 elections.

Huge wins, no doubt, for anyone interested in fairer representative democracy.

But there’s more that can be done.

Yes, the rulings let stand a January state Supreme Court decision that 2011 congressional district maps (ranked among the nation’s most gerrymandered), drawn by a Republican-run legislature, were unconstitutionally partisan in favor of the GOP.

Yes, the rulings also let stand new maps, controversially drawn by the Democratic-controlled state Supreme Court.

But the rulings did not address the bigger picture and the bigger problem. They did not address the process that led to their actions: Politicians picking their own districts.

If future fights over district maps are to be avoided, or made less likely, it’s that process that needs to be changed.

And we’re at a place right now where such change, admittedly a heavy lift, almost seems attainable.

After lots of grassroots work and citizen lobbying, the Senate State Government Committee is to hold a hearing next week (March 27) on legislation creating an independent citizens commission to redraw district maps after each 10-year census.

Due to increased public interest in the issue, other hearings could follow, according to Fred Sembach, chief of staff to committee chairman Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon).

Multiple bills are pending. One deals solely with congressional districts, another only with legislative districts.

But the focus should be on a bipartisan-sponsored bill (Senate Bill 22) from Sens. Lisa Boscola (D., Lehigh) and Mario Scavello (R., Monroe).

It, along with a mirror-bill in the House (House Bill 722), sponsored by Rep. Steve Samuelson (D., Northampton) with more than 100 bipartisan co-sponsors, would allow a citizens commission to draw lines for both legislative and congressional districts.

Both bills are built on a model used in California, one of a handful of states with independent commissions, rather than politicians, drawing district lines.

The good news for reformers is that court fights and ongoing education efforts on the issue here, especially by the citizens group Fair Districts PA, have made gerrymandering something close to a household word across the state.

“Certainly, people are paying attention,” says Carol Kuniholm of Exton, chair and co-founder of Fair Districts. She notes court action was “long overdue and expensive,” and sends a message, “You can’t keep ignoring the need to put a better process in place.”

The bad news for reformers is that the path to change — and the timing, and the politics involved – makes for a slippery trip.

Replacing pols with citizens requires amending the state Constitution. That means legislation must pass the House and Senate in two successive sessions and be approved in a statewide voter referendum.

Plus, the Constitution (Article XI, Section 1) requires public advertising, after each passage, three months in advance of a general election. To get a new process in place for use after the 2020 census means the legislature must do a first-pass bill by July. That’s a tight timetable.

And while the Senate is willing to start a discussion, the House remains essentially mute. Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), chairman of the State Government Committee, where Samuelson’s bill has sat since last May, opposes such reform. When I pressed Metcalfe on it recently, he said, “I don’t have any interest. Our Constitution is a fine document as it is.”

Also, now that courts took away legislative leaders’ ability to control maps for this and the next election cycle, how open do you think they are to losing control, period? I’m thinking not too open.

Yet, citizen education and involvement can be a powerful force. If harnessed and properly applied, it can lead to lasting reform – a knockout punch to a too-long-standing enemy of fair elections.