Monday, December 22, 2014

A whole new Pa. legislature

By Jack Nagel

Pennsylvania's state legislators are moving toward a major reform that defies cynical expectations. On June 3, a Senate committee unanimously recommended amendments to the state constitution that would reduce the House from 203 to 153 members and the Senate from 50 to 45. Last December, also with bipartisan support, the House passed a bill that would slash the number of senators to 38.

Most people don't expect politicians to vote against their own interests. Yet if either proposal is ratified, up to 62 legislators would lose their jobs.

There is still a long way to go. The House and Senate versions must be reconciled. Then, after an election, the two chambers must pass the amendments again. After that, voters must approve the amendments in a referendum.

Let's assume lawmakers are serious. If so, I urge them to take two additional steps that would yield even more savings while greatly improving state politics.

First, consolidate the General Assembly into a unicameral body, with no seats cut beyond what has already been proposed. I am not advocating abolition of the Senate, but rather a merger of the House and Senate into a single Assembly. Current senators and representatives could compete on an equal footing for its seats.

A merged Assembly would eliminate duplicate committees and other redundancies, realize greater economies than keeping two chambers, and end deadlocks over budgets and other crucial legislation. All 10 Canadian provinces have unicameral legislatures, and Nebraskans are proud of their one-house assembly. Pennsylvania should follow the same path.

Second, elect the unicameral Assembly using a system that will more fairly represent all voters while reducing the manipulation and polarization that distort our politics.

At present, Pennsylvania elects state legislators through a defective and outmoded system. For both chambers, the legislature carves the state into geographic districts, each represented by one member - the person who won the most votes.

Because district lines strongly affect which party wins, politicians have an incentive to gerrymander. Manipulation of boundaries combines with natural demographic differences to produce mostly noncompetitive districts. Therefore, most citizens' votes don't matter, and turnout is low.

The result is that almost no Democrats are elected from rural areas, and almost no Republicans from big cities. Geographic and partisan conflicts reinforce each other, so neither caucus understands the other's concerns.

Minority groups are underrepresented because their votes are concentrated in urban districts. Women also are underrepresented, partly because harshly adversarial, winner-take-all elections discourage many from entering the arena. Because the state legislature is a stepping-stone to higher office, the low proportion of women there helps explain why no women have been elected to our incoming congressional delegation or to the governor's office.

Fortunately, remedies to these problems are available in the form of more modern voting methods that have proven successful in other democracies. I recommend the reform pioneered by Germany after World War II and adopted in the 1990s by New Zealand, Scotland, Wales, and London. Known as mixed-member proportional, or MMP, this system more fairly represents all voters while maintaining the American tradition of electing representatives from local constituencies.

An MMP legislature consists of two types of representatives. Some (usually the larger number) are elected from single-member districts as in our present legislature, while others are drawn from statewide slates nominated by political parties. Philadelphia's City Council has a similar two-tier structure. MMP, however, differs from the Philadelphia system in the way it chooses at-large members. Philadelphia elects them by a crude method that gives the minority party two token members. In contrast, MMP assigns at-large seats to establish overall proportionality between the votes each party receives statewide (added across all districts) and the seats it wins in the assembly.

An MMP system in Pennsylvania would go a long way toward solving the problems the existing method creates:

Any seats a party wins by manipulating district boundaries would be offset when statewide seats are allocated. Thus, MMP would eliminate partisan incentives to gerrymander.

Votes for Republicans in big cities and for Democrats in rural districts would no longer be wasted, because they would count toward determining the number of at-large seats for each party. Therefore, parties would have an incentive to appeal for votes in each other's strongholds. They would do that by nominating statewide slates that include candidates from all regions.

Parties would also seek votes from women and minorities by nominating balanced tickets for at-large seats. After New Zealand replaced the method Pennsylvania uses with MMP, women and minorities immediately achieved dramatic, lasting gains.

Here, then, is the challenge to our legislators: If you are determined to do the right thing for Pennsylvania, let us elect a smaller number of members to a unicameral assembly using a fair and modern mixed-member proportional system.


Jack Nagel is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. nageljh@sas.upenn.edu
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