A Tale of Two Bills in the Fight Against Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania

Senate Bill 22 and House Bill 722 were virtually identical when introduced last year in their respective chambers of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. They had bipartisan support and were drafted by legislators, policy staff and advocates for accountable government, with the goal of ending partisan gerrymandering — the intentional drawing of voting district lines to benefit a particular political party. So far, these bills have taken divergent paths: one, exemplifying how the democratic process should work, and the other, demonstrating what can happen when this process is hijacked by partisan politics.

These bills called for an amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution that would remove the responsibility for redistricting from the purview of the state legislature and place it in the hands of an independent citizens commission. The idea was to create a redistricting process that is open, transparent and fair, rather than one controlled by legislators who have a political stake in the outcome of the district maps they’re drawing. Enshrined in the Pennsylvania Constitution, this solution would be a permanent one, in contrast to the temporary fix provided by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in its recent decision to overhaul Pennsylvania’s congressional district map.

Public hearing on SB 22.

On March 27, the Senate State Government Committee held a four-hour public hearing on several redistricting bills, with the focus on SB 22. Citizens from all over the state attended the hearing, packing the room and spilling over into two overflow rooms.

In an interview with The Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Rabbi Michael Pollack, executive director of the democracy movement March on Harrisburg, described the atmosphere in the hearing room as “Article 1, Section 2 in action.” This section of the Pennsylvania Constitution states, “All power is inherent in the people “and they have the “right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think proper.”

During the hearing, Sen. Lisa Boscola, the primary sponsor of SB 22, ardently attacked gerrymandering in Pennsylvania and recounted her own experience of being in a gerrymandered district. She said to the senators on the State Government Committee, “Every one of you up there knows the shenanigans that were played in every redistricting.”

Minority Chair Sen. Anthony Williams (left) and Chair Sen. Mike Folmer.

Two former senators-turned-lobbyists — Alan Novak and T.J. Rooney — argued against SB 22, saying that redistricting should remain under the control of the legislature. There was little support in the room expressed for their position, as epitomized by Sen. Anthony Williams, the minority chair of the State Government Committee, when he said, “We wouldn’t have a packed room if people trusted we could do it right.”

Carol Kuniholm and Patrick Beaty.

When Carol Kuniholm and Patrick Beaty of Fair Districts PA (FDPA) testified, they were peppered with questions from senators on the State Government Committee, but also praised for their efforts on behalf of redistricting reform. FDPA is a non-partisan citizens group spearheading the fight against gerrymandering in Pennsylvania by advocating for a permanent change in the redistricting process, as put forth in SB 22.

Meanwhile, HB 722 has taken a very different path. Although it had over 100 cosponsors in the House, the bill remained stalled in the House State Government Committee because Committee Chair Daryl Metcalfe refused to give it a hearing. Then, on April 10, facing the possibility of the bill being removed from his committee, Rep. Metcalfe scheduled a voting meeting for the next morning, giving his committee members less than 24 hours’ notice and not publicizing what legislation would be voted on.

At the meeting, Metcalfe presented his amended version of HB 722, which replaced the independent citizens commission with a proposal that keeps redistricting within the purview of the state legislature in a way that is even more partisan than Pennsylvania’s existing system. After a 30-minute meeting with no testimony from outside experts, or even from the representatives who sponsored the original bill, Metcalfe’s amended version was adopted by the Republican-controlled State Government Committee.

“What we just saw was a blatant demonstration of unaccountable government,” said Kuniholm in response to Metcalfe’s actions.

Meanwhile, the Senate State Government Committee has scheduled another public hearing on SB 22 for April 24. The immediate goal for Kuniholm and her supporters is to get SB 22 passed by the State Government Committee, moved out onto the Senate floor and approved by the Senate as a whole. The bill would then move to the House, where it would be up against Metcalfe and his supporters.

Another challenge for FDPA and other advocates is the tight time deadline they face if redistricting reform is to take place by 2021, which is the year that new district maps will be drawn. To amend the Pennsylvania Constitution, the redistricting bill must be passed by both houses of the General Assembly by June 30, or by the latest, July 6. The same legislation must then be passed again by the General Assembly during the 2019-2020 legislative session. Finally, the proposed constitutional amendment must be placed on the ballot and approved in a referendum by the voters.

Whether redistricting reform happens by 2021 or not, groups like FDPA and March on Harrisburg are not going away. They will continue educating the public and lobbying state legislators. They are also holding a large rally on redistricting reform in Harrisburg on April 16. In addition, FDPA will continue supporting members of the public in their efforts to convince townships, boroughs and other local governments throughout the state to pass resolutions in favor of a constitutional amendment for redistricting reform. More than 215 such resolutions have passed already, demonstrating to state legislators the support for this issue in their districts.

Finally, Kuniholm emphasizes that voters need to know where candidates stand on the issue of redistricting reform when they go to the polls during the May primaries and the November general election. As she said during the hearing on SB 22:

This is an election issue. And all the other things, no matter what single issues are important to us, if we don’t have a responsive legislature, it doesn’t matter. Nothing changes until this changes.

Photos from March on Harrisburg Facebook page.

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