With the clock ticking toward a new national census, followed by redrawn boundaries for state legislative and congressional districts, the game of banishing Pennsylvania’s gerrymander is once again afoot.
Yes, I know you’ve heard it before. Yes, it’s a near-impossible lift.
But this time around there’s a political twist that just might help reform move forward.
You know the basics.
Our Republican-run legislature holds power to draw political districts generous to the GOP. (If Dems were in charge, the reverse would be true.)
That power was sapped temporarily last year when the state Supreme Court ruled congressional maps unconstitutional and ordered new maps that led to a flip in our representation in Congress, from 13-5 Republican to a 9-9 split following the 2018 elections.
But those new maps will be redrawn by the same GOP legislature after the 2020 census — with no guarantee the gerrymander doesn’t crawl back into play.
The issue, in my view, tops the list of needed reforms to improve democracy in a state where democracy needs improvement.
So, reformers who failed last year to pass legislation transferring legislative power to an independent citizens’ commission designed to reduce partisan privilege are back in the fight.
Their efforts, as the saying goes, are to let voters pick their lawmakers rather than continuing to let lawmakers pick their voters.
Time’s running out.
But among approaches is a bipartisan, two-bill attack to beat the clock.
Rep. Tom Murt (R., Montgomery; parts of NE Philly) is pushing a citizens’ commission for state legislative seats in a bill (HB 22) cosponsored with Rep. Steve Samuelson (D., Northampton).
Samuelson is pushing a bill (HB 23), cosponsored with Murt, creating a commission to draw congressional seats.
Murt’s bill is problematic. But Samuelson’s bill makes it less so.
Since altering the process for legislative seats requires a constitutional amendment — which must pass two successive legislative sessions and a voter referendum — it’s unlikely there’s time to pass it and set up a commission before reapportionment is underway in 2021.
But Samuelson’s bill requires legislative passage only once and therefore holds the potential of putting a commission in place in the event Murt’s bill passes and is approved by voters.
“I don’t think we’re trying to be clever,” Murt tells me. “We’re just reacting to what the people of the commonwealth want, a discussion on reforms and boundaries.”
A citizen commission, he says, is “good policy.” He’s “hopeful” it can happen.
Both bills seek a commission of 11 randomly selected voters: four R’s, four D’s, three nonaffiliated, to draw lines for state and federal districts.
The Senate also plans to take up the issue anew in just a few weeks.
Senate GOP Majority Leader Jake Corman tells me, “We’re open to that discussion.” He says he supports a citizen commission.
House GOP Leader Bryan Cutler isn’t a fan of amending the constitution but said, in a statement, “I am willing to have the discussion.”
That’s all good. Now the twist.
If reform is again ignored and things stay as they are, Dems hold an edge.
The state Supreme Court, unlike after the last census, is controlled by Democrats. And (ahem) not that any court would ever act in the interest of one party over another, this court has final say in the current legislative reapportionment process.
Carol Kuniholm, of Fair Districts PA, a statewide coalition aimed at reforms, says that should help Republicans support a change.
“The self-interest factor as a motivator would seem pretty high,” she says.
And after losing House and Senate seats in 2018, the GOP might well be antsy.
Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s Redistricting Reform Commission, created by executive order last November, chaired by Committee of Seventy boss David Thornburgh, plans nine public meetings around the state between March and June, with a report due the governor in August.
Naturally, none of this is a promise of progress.
Republicans opted out of (and ridiculed) Wolf’s efforts. Democrats could well sit back and rely on the high court. And Harrisburg loves to duck and delay.
On tough issues, a common ploy is for the House and Senate to pass something good but different enough so it can’t be enacted. Leaders and members can cite accomplishments — even though nothing gets done.