At long last, there are signs that Pennsylvania voters might win representative government. Granted, the signs are dim, but still encouraging.
For decades, the political aristocracy has rigged elections by carefully digging moats around compliant voters to create safe districts for their candidates. The map makers spread opposition voters so far apart, they become powerless. It works. Pennsylvania Republicans, who drew the maps effective since 2012, hold 13 of the 18 House seats even though Democrats have rung up about 50 percent of the overall vote in recent elections.
Republicans created district maps so ridiculous that U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan’s turf runs through five counties to include as many Republicans as possible. The GOP split the increasingly blue Montgomery County among five congressional districts to weaken the Democrats’ chances of taking an extra seat or two.
Advocates of fair play have cried foul to no avail — until now. They’re more organized and effective, and are pushing legislative reforms as well as a pair of legal challenges which are moving forward in the courts with some positive signs.
Last week, the state Supreme Court fast-tracked a case which is being heard this week in Commonwealth Court. Expert after expert for the plaintiff voters has pointed out how the Republicans stacked the deck in their favor. One expert used a computer to randomly draw hundreds of districts that were more fair than current ones. A fair district does not break up communities or pack voters of a single or race party into a district and has a substantially equal number of voters in each district in a state, under guidelines established by U. S. Supreme Court decisions and the Voting Rights Act.
Testimony in the separate federal suit wrapped up last week; there is no time set for a decision. The case’s most significant moment came in November when a three-judge panel forced Republicans in control of drawing districts, Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) and Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R., Jefferson), to hand over data from the Republicans’ national gerrymandering operation. It is important because while we know they rigged congressional districts, the data could show just how they did it.
These two suits could result in fair districts being drawn in time for the 2018 congressional races. But even if the judgments are good for voters, map making would still be in the hands of the ruling class.
There’s an even better solution before the legislature right now pushed by Fair Districts Pa. Lawmakers from both parties introduced bills early this year to create an independent commission to draw district lines, not only for congressional seats but for state legislative seats as well. Citizens, who are not beholden to the parties, would be supported by experts in demography, statistical analysis, map making, and other disciplines and draw districts containing Republicans and Democrats and more diverse constituencies. That would force politicians to represent a variety of perspectives, even making compromises with the other party to solve problems.
Although 13 of the 40 senators and 97 of the 203 house members have co-sponsored these bills, Scarnati and Turzai are blocking them. Call your legislators and tell them they’re crossing a line by continuing to rig the system — and your vote.