Political Power-Play in Harrisburg


— Barry Kauffman, Common Cause PA

The biggest political power-play of the decade is unfolding right now in Harrisburg — and it is, perhaps, the most self-serving and least transparent process of state government. It is known as reapportionment or redistricting.

Every ten years, following the census, each state is required to reconfigure the lines for its congressional and legislative districts, to ensure that everyone has equal representation. For its legislative districts, Pennsylvania establishes a five-person Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC), comprised of the top Republicans and Democrats in the state House and Senate, plus a fifth person who serves as chairman. The Pennsylvania State Constitution directs the LRC to ensure that each district has approximately the same number of residents, is compact and contiguous, and keeps counties, cities, towns, boroughs, townships and wards intact unless a split is “absolutely necessary”. This is supposed to lead to elections that are fair and competitive.

The reality, however, is much different. Looking at the proposed legislative maps is like a game of “name-that-shape.” Our redistricting system has been contorted into an incumbency protection game that virtually guarantees one party control of each district and the re-election of incumbents. This defies intentions of representative democracy in which elections are to be the citizens’ tool to hold power accountable. By “gerrymandering” legislative districts into bizarre shapes, legislators now cherry-pick their voters instead of voters picking their legislators.

The 2011 poster child for the abuse of voters’ rights to fair elections is manifested in central Pennsylvania’s 15th Senatorial district shown above. Currently, the district encompasses Harrisburg and its suburbs east of the Susquehanna River, plus a small adjacent section of York County. But in an attempt to protect an embattled incumbent Senator, the LRC created a new district that eliminates troublesome Harrisburg constituents. So instead of being contained almost entirely in a compact Dauphin County region, the new 15th district snakes through Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York and Adams counties creating a 150 mile horseshoe that dismantles any sense of community. The plan has been opposed by public officials throughout the five-county gerrymander.

The five-members of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission may have a greater impact on the outcome of Pennsylvania’s elections over the next decade than all of the state’s voters combined, because when they “gerry-rig” district borders, they essentially predetermine the probable outcome of most legislative elections for the coming decade.

However, the system can work the way the Constitution intends. One enterprising citizen has proven it (and did so working without the millions of dollars, expensive computer software and dozens of staff available to Pennsylvania’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission). Amanda Hoft developed an alternative plan which bests the LRC’s Preliminary Plan by strictly adhering to the constitutionally mandated standards. While one legislative leader proudly crowed that the LRC’s plan for the House splintered only 110 municipalities this year, as opposed to 121 in 2001, the Hoft’s plan broke up only 27 municipalities. On the Senate map, she split only 4 municipalities instead of the 27 fractured in the official plan. By eliminating all political criteria that are intended to build party advantage and safe seats for incumbents, she instead built districts to protect citizens’ interests in competitive elections and government accountability.

Links:

  • Amanda Holt’s oral testimony: transcript and video.
  • Amanda Holt’s Full testimony including maps & illustrations. (Large file may take a couple of minutes to load.)
  • Holt website.
  • Anyone who wishes to show support of Amanda Holt’s proposal may let the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission know through their contact page.

More after the jump.

The documentary film Gerrymandering, opens with the quote from Thomas Pynchon;

“Nothing will create bad history more directly nor more brutally than drawing a line.”

Redistricting is all about drawing lines – lines that can empower citizens and communities, or lines that disable competitive elections and vitiate the will of the people. For 2011, Pennsylvanians must demand a redistricting plan that protects the political power of their communities, and bolsters government accountability through competitive elections – and we must insist that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court uphold the Pennsylvania Constitution’s standards for fair redistricting.

Before our state endures another “Gerry-rigged” redistricting in 2021, we also must reform the system for drawing district lines. California and Iowa have successful systems that could serve as models. Pennsylvanians can have fair and competitive elections that permit them to hold power accountable — but we will have to demand it. If we fail to fix the system, we will continue to be disserved by safe-seat politicians who owe greater loyalty to the funders of their political war-chests than to constituents; and we will continue to be befuddled and angered by the
unintelligible self-serving decisions they make.

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