Riding the Redistricting Reform Roller Coaster in the Pa. General Assembly

The national census will take place in 2020. And then, the process of redrawing congressional and state legislative maps will go on in states across the country in 2021. Redistricting reform advocates had hoped for some guidance in this process from the U.S. Supreme Court, but in two recent cases, the court failed to opine on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering — the practice of drawing voting districts to benefit a particular political party — and instead, issued rulings on procedural grounds.

Just how the 2021 redistricting process will take place in Pennsylvania now depends on what happens in the state’s General Assembly within the next 10 days or so. In fact, advocates for redistricting reform in Pennsylvania have been riding a legislative roller coaster for months — and it continues to be a very bumpy ride.

In 2017, companion bills — HB 722 and SB 22 — were introduced in the Pennsylvania House and Pennsylvania Senate, with the goal of amending the state constitution to create an independent citizens commission to handle redistricting. Currently, the responsibility for drawing district maps lies in the hands of the very people most directly affected by the outcome — the state legislators.

March 27 Public Hearing on SB 22. Photo: March on Harrisburg.

This year, there was significant movement on SB 22 in the Senate State Government Committee. Exemplifying democracy at work, the committee held two public hearings on the bill and negotiated with representatives from several good government groups. On May 22, the committee gutted and replaced the bill, sending it out to the full Senate for consideration.

The fact that a redistricting reform bill got this far in a legislative body dominated by Republicans, who benefit from the state’s currently gerrymandered maps, was miraculous in and of itself. However, even redistricting reform advocates were divided on the merits of the amended bill. While the bill would establish a citizens commission for redistricting, politics would not be completely removed from the selection process: the members of the commission would require legislative confirmation by a two-thirds majority and would be selected from a pool of applicants by the governor and by the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate. In addition, if the commission were unable to agree on district maps, its proposals would be sent to the General Assembly for final determination.

But then, on June 12, even the supporters of the replacement for SB 22 were blindsided by further partisan shenanigans.

The day began on an upswing. On its third consideration of SB 22, the Senate adopted — by a 48-to-1 vote — an amendment proposed by Sen. Mike Folmer, the Republican chair of the Senate State Government committee. Intending to strengthen the democratic safeguards in SB 22, the amendment included additional criteria for selecting members of the independent commission, as well as additional map-making requirements.

Pa. State Sen. Ryan Aument

Then, Republican Sen. Ryan Aument sabotaged the whole process by calling for another amendment to SB 22: one that would create judicial districts for the election of Pennsylvania’s appellate judges, as opposed to statewide judicial elections, which is the current system. SB 22, including Sen. Aument’s amendment, passed in the Senate the following day on party lines, with the exception of two Democrats who voted for the bill.

In withdrawing her organization’s support of the amended bill, Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA, who had negotiated tirelessly with Folmer on SB 22, wrote:

In minutes, they took the most read, discussed and debated bill in decades and burdened it with a controversial, divisive amendment — one that had received zero public hearings. Then they rammed it through with clear partisan intent.

Anne Hanna, a member of Concerned Citizens for Democracy, who has taken a very strong interest in the issue of partisan gerrymandering in Pennsylvania, goes even further. After explaining how Aument’s amendment could lead to the gerrymandering of the courts, she said:

So, this bill is really, really bad, and it’s a major threat to our democracy in general and the redistricting reform issue in particular. As far as I can tell, this is pretty much an existential threat, and anybody who cares about Pennsylvania as a whole, or redistricting specifically, should be pulling out all stops to prevent it from passing.

Pa. State Rep. Dave Reed.

Meanwhile, the amended version of SB 22 has moved over to the House for consideration. In addition, there are a number of other redistricting bills currently in the House Rules Committee, including one proposed by the Republican committee chair and majority leader in the House, Rep. Dave Reed. Reed’s bill — HB 2449 — calls for a randomly selected citizens redistricting commission. However, it also requires that any district maps drawn by the commission be approved by a simple majority in the state House and Senate, and after two failed attempts to gain that approval, empowers the state legislature to redraw the maps.

In order for the Pennsylvania General Assembly to accomplish redistricting reform via constitutional amendment prior to the drawing of district maps in 2021, the General Assembly must pass a law by July 6 of this year. However, with budget discussions moving along uncharacteristically timely, summer recess may begin at the end of this month, meaning a redistricting law would have to be passed by June 30, while the General Assembly is still in session. With this deadline creeping ever closer, the prospects of a law being passed that reform advocates can support are growing dimmer.

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