The 2020 U.S. census will trigger a new round of redistricting in 2021 — and in Pennsylvania, that will likely mean more gerrymandered (intentionally drawn to favor a particular political party) districts and more expensive court challenges. That is, unless a group of state legislators and pro-democracy citizens groups — like Fair Districts PA— prevail in their effort to permanently change the system of redistricting in Pennsylvania, for both congressional and state legislative districts. This effort calls for amending the Pennsylvania Constitution to transfer the responsibility of redistricting from the state legislature to an independent citizens commission.
Amending the state constitution is an arduous process that requires that legislation be passed in two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly, and then be approved by the public through a referendum on the ballot. As a result, step one in this case is to pass redistricting legislation in both houses of the General Assembly by June 30, or by the latest, July 6, of this year. To this end, legislative supporters of redistricting reform introduced virtually identical bipartisan bills last year in the Pennsylvania House (HB 722) and the Pennsylvania Senate (SB 22). Both bills were then referred to the State Government Committees in their respective legislative chambers.But that’s where the parallels ended. HB 722 was initially stalled in the House State Government Committee by the Republican committee chairman, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, who ultimately amended the bill by excising its very heart, the independent citizens commission. In Metcalfe’s new version of HB 722, redistricting remains under the control of the state legislature. Metcalfe’s bill was approved by the State Government Committee along party lines within 30 minutes, with little discussion and no outside testimony.
In contrast, in the Senate, SB 22 has already been the subject of two public hearings by the Senate State Government Committee. The first hearing took place at the end of March before a packed room, as well as two overflow rooms. During a period of four hours, testimony was presented by state senators, including the Democratic bill sponsor, Sen. Lisa Boscola; two lobbyists who oppose the independent commission; and two representatives from Fair Districts PA. Testifying before the committee, Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA, explained, “I think what we want is a transparent process, where we feel like our votes count, our voices are heard and our representatives are representing us.”
The second public hearing was convened by the Senate State Government Committee on April 24. During that hearing a number of issues were discussed, such as how redistricting is handled in other states, how the members of an independent commission should be selected, what instructions should be provided to those tasked with drawing the district maps, and what should occur when the mapmakers are unable to reach an agreement.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Rep. Mike Folmer, the Republican chair of the State Government Committee, rightly emphasized that when considering an issue of this great importance, and one that involves amending the state constitution, the Senate needs to take the time to “get it right.”
But with the clock ticking, the question is how much time will that take. If legislation isn’t passed by this July, redistricting reform via constitutional amendment will not be possible in 2021 — and the process of redrawing maps will not begin again for another ten years, after the 2030 census. According to the pro-democracy advocacy group March on Harrisburg, another hearing before the Senate State Government Committee is expected within the next couple weeks, followed soon after, by a vote on the floor of the Senate.
To find out a candidate’s position on the creation of an independent citizens redistricting commission, check out the Know Before You Vote page on the Fair Districts PA website.