PA Supreme Court Accepts Second Legislative Redistricting Plan


Current PA congressional districts by party

— by Kenneth Myers, Esq.

Pennsylvania has become a state with a significant majority of voters registered as Democratic. Yet, our Congressional delegation, state Senate and state House of Representatives are all at least 60% Republican. A substantial part of the explanation to this is an adroit political redistricting: “packing” (squeezing the opposition’s votes into a few districts) and “cracking” (splitting pockets of opposition voters into separate districts where they cannot form a majority) to preserve the dominant party.

More after the jump.
The federal Constitution requires legislative districts to be rebalanced at least every 10 years in order to achieve population equality (“one man, one vote”). The Pennsylvania Constitution requires that legislative districts be compact and contiguous, and avoid splitting county and municipal boundaries to the extent possible. But in actual fact, our legislative districts split hundreds of counties and municipalities. “Problem” counties, such as the recently-turned-Democratic Montgomery County, are split many times in all directions to dilute their voting power.

In 2011, during the legislative redistricting process, concerned citizen Amanda Holt prepared a redistricting plan with minimum splits on her computer and submitted it to the Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC). The LRC largely ignored Holt, coming up with its own highly political redistricting maps. Holt and others took the matter to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, pointing out that her plan split seven fewer counties, 81 fewer municipalities, and 184 fewer wards than the LRC plan. Although the six sitting members of the court were divided equally between Republicans and Democrats, Chief Justice Castille voted with the Democrats to reject the LRC plan.

The revised plan proposed by the LRC in June 2012 reduced the number of splits, but not to the level of the Holt plan: The LRC plan had 221 splits of municipalities in state House of Representatives districts, compared to 86 in the Holt plan. The LRC plan has 37 splits of municipalities in state Senate districts, compared to 17 in the Holt plan. Holt and a number of other citizens appealed again to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Last week, that court unanimously upheld the revised LRC plan. In a lengthy opinion, the court stated its continued support for the goals of the state constitution, that voting districts be compact, contiguous and conformal to municipal boundaries, but concluded that other considerations such as population equality, historical district lines and even political gain, could be considered by the LRC as well in reaching its conclusion.

Jeff Albert Esq., who litigated against the LRC’s 2001 redistricting plan on behalf of Upper Dublin Township, commented:

In the last four pages of its fifty-eight page decision, the court basically concluded that the constitutional requirement, of avoiding division of political subdivisions to the maximum extent possible, could be modified by political considerations, such as retaining incumbents, so long as the scheme conformed with looser standards of ‘one-man, one-vote’ than had previously been accepted in Pennsylvania, and its divisions of political subdivisions gave better heed to subdivision boundaries than schemes approved in prior years.

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission Strikes Out

Great news to report from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court!

Gerrymandering declared unconstitutional in Holt v. 2011 Legislative Reapportionment Commission.

Our recent article The Legislative Reapportionment Commission Strikes Back explained Pennsylvania’s flawed redistricting process. Many local leaders petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court about how their communities had been diced into a number of legislative districts. The LRC countered those claims by appealing to the big picture: those splits were “necessary”. Meanwhile, Amanda Holt et al and State Senator Jay Costa et al each proposed a complete redistricting map superior to the LRC’s official map according to all of the relevant criteria: they split fewer communities, the districts were more compact and equal in population, etc. The LRC countered these petitions saying that they usurped the LRC’s traditional authority.


Amanda Holt

In the past few citizens had the technological know how to propose redistricting maps of their own so unfair maps went unchallenged. Now private citizens like Amanda Holt can produce such maps on their personal computers. In fact,  Philadelphia, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia and Arizona have held redistricting contests literally inviting their citizens to help draw the lines.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the petitioners and rejected the LRC’s gerrymander. The vote was 4-3 with Justices Castille (R), Baer (D), Todd (D) and McCaffery (D) in the majority, and Justices Saylor (R), Eakin (R) and Melvin (R) dissenting. Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille crossed party lines and joined the three democratic Associate Justices in the per curium order remanding the redistricting back to the Legislative Reapportionment Commission which will have to start over again.

AND NOW, this 25th day of January, 2012, upon consideration of the petitions for review and briefs in these legislative redistricting appeals, and after entertaining oral argument on January 23, 2012, this court finds that the final 2011 Legislative Reapportionment Plan is contrary to law. PA. CONST. art. II, Sec. 17(d). Accordingly, the final 2011 Legislative Reapportionment Plan is REMANDED to the 2011 Legislative Reapportionment Commission with a directive to reapportion the Commonwealth in a manner consistent with this Court’s Opinion which will follow.

The 2001 Legislative Reapportionment Plan… shall remain in effect until a revised final 2011 Legislative Reapportionment Plan having the force of law is approved.

In the meantime, we will stick with the old districts drawn in 2001.

Is the idea that voters should choose their representatives passé?

For too long, politicians have usurped the rights of citizen’s to choose their representatives, instead gerrymandering their states, effectively choosing the people who are most likely to elect them. Hopefully this decision will limit the ability of politicians to choose their constituents and put the power back where it belongs — in the hands of the people.

The new calendar for nominating petitions follows the jump.

  • Today, January 26. Nomination petitions can be circulated using the old districts. Signatures dated January 24 or January 25 will still be accepted even if they come from the districts on the rejected LRC plan.
  • Thursday, February 16, last day to file nominating petitions.
  • Thursday, February 23, last day to file objections to nominating petitions.
  • Monday, February 27, last day court may hold hearings on objections to nominating petitions.
  • Friday, March 2, list of candidates for the primary is finalized. This is the last day for the court to rule on objections to nominating petitions, and the last day for candidates to withdraw.

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission Strikes Back


Pennsylvania’s historic gerrymander is approaching a conclusion.

Let’s review the story so far.

  • Act One: Stacking the Deck. The Census Bureau released the data for Pennsylvania from the 2010 Census on March 11, 2011, but the Legislative Reapportionment Commission on a party-line vote delayed choosing their fifth and final member until the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Supreme Court stepped in and named Judge Stephen McEwen (R) on April 19.
  • Act Two: Running Out The Clock. According to a plain reading of the Pennsylvania Constitution, the LRC then had a 90-day deadline and had to prepare a preliminary plan by July 18. There would then be 60 days for “corrections” and hearings, leading to a final plan by September 17.
    Any appeals to that plan would have to be filed within 30 days or by October 16. This schedule is designed to give plenty of time for potential candidates to plan before filing to run in next year’s elections. However, according to the Republicans on the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, Pennsylvania does not have census data until they say that Pennsylvania has census data. The LRC’s first public meeting was not until August 17, and at that time, they certified their approval of the United States Census data for Pennsylvania and declared that this would start the 90-day clock. By a stroke of the pen, the Republicans bought themselves four months of time.
  • Act Three: Bait and Switch. Republicans on the Committee pretend to negotiate with the Democrats in good faith, and then reveal their secret, partisan redistricting plan minutes before the LRC votes along party lines. 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.
  • Act Four: General Outrage. Local community leaders object that their communities have been  divided into multiple districts — contrary to the protections offered by the Pennsylvania Constitution. The plan has been opposed by public officials throughout the gerrymander. Concerned citizen Amanda Holt develops a map of her own using more compact districts which minimizes splits of county and townships.
  • Act Five: Our Protests Fall On Deaf Ears. December 12, the LRC issues its final redistricting plan, and eleven groups of Pennsylvanians file petitions with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court challenging this map.

Now, the Legislative Reapportionment Commission has responded to the various petitions.

Some of the petitions are by mayors and other locals officials whose communities have been split, packed, cracked and otherwise gerrymandered by the proposed map. The LRC argues that such local concerns should be ignored because splits are necessary in one corner of the state in order to avoid other problems elsewhere.

However, the complaints by Amanda Holt et al and Senator Jay Costa et al take a holistic approach. They both propose complete maps which satisfying the Federal and State requirements of equal population, compact districts, etc. while avoiding splits better than does the LRC map. However, the LRC does not accept this sort of map, saying that approving a map which was not created by the LRC would “invite the public at large to usurp the Commission’s responsibilities and subvert its constitutional role.”

The LRC argues that their plan is no more gerrymandered than previous redistricting maps, and perhaps they are correct on this point. However, computer technology is much more widespread now than it was in 1980 or 1990 or 2000. Back then the only people who could understand the arcane world of redistricting were experts with years of training and expensive equipment, so political operatives were able to get away with a lot of mischief. Now, ordinary citizens like Amanda Holt are able to work with the same data that the LRC has been working with, and if her map is better than the LRC’s map according to all of the criteria mentioned in the Voting Rights Act, the United States Constitution and the Pennsylvania Constitution, then it should be adopted in place of the flawed plan put forward by the LRC.

Oral arguments are scheduled for this Monday, January 23 in the Supreme Court Courtroom at the Capitol Building in Harrisburg.

Because of the delays imposed by the Republicans on the LRC, the Supreme Court will have little time to decide. Candidates will start circulating nominating petitions for the primaries the very next day: Tuesday, January 24. It would be very confusing to change the district lines once the primary is underway. (The nominating petitions are due on February 14.)

The question is whether the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will act like a partisan body and rubber stamp the gerrymander by a 4-3 party line vote, or whether they will stand up for the Pennsylvania Constitution and protect the voting rights of Pennsylvanians across the political spectrum.

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.

Pennsylvanians Take Exception to Partisan Redistricting

Last month the Republicans on the Legislative Reapportionment Committee revealed their partisan state legislative redistricting plan minutes before rubber stamping it in a party line vote.

Concerned citizens across the Commonwealth stated their grievances with the plan by filing “exceptions” as mandated by the Pennsylvania State Constitution. In Harrisburg, on November 23, the Committee heard testimony demonstrating various objections to the redistricting plan.

Article II, Section 16 of the Pennsylvania State Constitution says that State House and Senate districts “shall be composed of compact and contiguous territory as nearly equal in population as practicable” and that “unless absolutely necessary no county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward shall be divided in forming either a senatorial or representative district.”

The failure of released preliminary maps to follow the Pennsylvania Constitution left multiple counties, municipalities, and wards suffering. Amanda Holt explained what went wrong and how the commission can correct this.

no splits of political subdivisions are allowed unless leaving them whole creates a district which violates one of the other constitutional requirements of being compact, contiguous, or of equal population.

Her alternate redistricting plan dramatically reduces the number of counties and townships being split while preserving the compactness, population equality and contiguity of the official LRC plan.

For example, Liz Rogan, President of the Board of Commissioners of Lower Merion Township, explained how her township is being sliced and diced. Since redistricting after the 2000 census, Lower Merion went from being represented by two state representatives to three representatives and now, following the 2010 Census, this proposal will have Lower Merion represented by four House members. However, as shown in Amanda Holt’s plan and as mandated by the Pennsylvania State Constitution, Lower Merion need not and must not be divided into multiple legislative districts.

Liz Rogan’s full remarks follow the jump.

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.

Testimony before the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission

Good afternoon. I’m Elizabeth Rogan and I serve as the President of the Board of Commissioners of Lower Merion Township in Montgomery County. However, today I am speaking for myself and on behalf of those I represent, as well as those living in Wards 4, 8 and 14, not on behalf of the full Board.

I’m honored to have this opportunity to testify before you today and thank you for your attention and for considering my comments. With all due respect for the time and energy of the individuals who worked to prepare the proposal, I am requesting you reconsider and revise the proposed plan.

It seems appropriate and timely to share a bit about myself to explain why I say I have the utmost respect for you and the individuals who prepared the redistricting plan. By way of background, I’m a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a professional in the field of planning and community development. Prior to taking office as a Commissioner in Lower Merion Township, I served as the Assistant and then the Director of Lower Merion’s Department of Planning & Community Development. But… way back when, in 1982, when I started my career, my very first assignment was to prepare and present a proposed redistricting plan to the City Council in Binghamton, N.Y. Well, that was certainly a real welcome to the grown up world of planning and politics!

And now, almost 30 years later, I find myself presenting testimony to you as a local elected official. Not quite what I envisioned oh so long ago!

So, on to the point of my testimony. Lower Merion is a First Class Township of 24 square miles that is now proposed to be represented not by 2, not by 3, but by 4 different House members. Since redistricting after the 2000 census, Lower Merion went from being represented by 2 state representatives to 3 representatives and now, following the 2010 Census, this proposal will have Lower Merion represented by 4 House members.

The venerable & non-partisan PA League of Women Voters states that redistricting should advance the fundamental purposes of a representative democracy, by giving the people a meaningful choice in electing their representatives, and, by holding government accountable to the people. The district boundaries should meet the following standards – in order of their importance:

  • Protecting the voting rights of minorities.
  • Promoting competitiveness and partisan fairness.
  • Respecting political subdivisions and communities of interest.
  • Encouraging geographical compactness and respecting natural geographic features and
    barriers.

I presume that by now you’re growing weary of hearing “why” it’s important to reapportion the
state’s population in a manner that creates competitive legislative districts. There’s no doubt that you’re committed to ensuring elected representatives are accountable to their constituents. And, theoretically there should be support for creating legislative districts that facilitate candidates having substantive debates and/or competitive races. And, most elected officials support the notion of seeking common ground with their opposition; and believe that bipartisan cooperation leads to better legislative outcomes.

Knowing why it’s important, and having, as my grandmother used to say, the “chutzpa,” to do something about it, are two very different things. Purposefully creating boundaries that meet the League of Women Voter’s standards could jeopardize your seat or that of a trusted colleague’s.

So, over the last two decades, the legislative boundaries created in our Commonwealth have
effectively eliminated competition and brought us to the point where re-election rates now exceed 98%.

Elected officials generally support and value the benefits of a representative democracy. I believe you would fight long and hard against attempts to wrest power from your constituents.

And, as successfully elected representatives, you likely work to actively and effectively represent your constituency. However, as redistricting changes the areas w/in a legislative district, perhaps by including parts of many different municipalities or by including several communities with distinctly different issues and/or interests, is that representative as effective and/or as available to their constituents as another representative whose district is geographically compact and includes constituents with common issues and goals? Do these outlying or minority constituents feel they have equal representation? My concern and point, is, that voters will certainly become more cynical and less interested in government and politics when the outcome of legislative elections continues to be effectively pre-determined.

It appears that the population of each proposed legislative district is between 61,000 and 64,000 people. Lower Merion, as a whole, is nearly that size, w/a 2010 population of 58,740; yet the current proposal divvies up the community and requires it to be represented by 4 House members. The need for any division is even more questionable when one considers that Narberth Borough, with a 2010 population of 4,282, is completely surrounded by Lower Merion Township, so, taken together, the population of both jurisdictions falls right within the average size of the proposed legislative districts.

If you refer to the display board, you will see that each representative will be faced w/the challenge of equally representing a diverse population, living in very different communities.

  • As proposed, the 194th District includes the northeast corner of Lower Merion in Montgomery County, and various parts of Philadelphia County, including for example, Roxborough, Manayunk, Germantown and East Falls.
  • The 166th District would include 2 Counties; a fraction of Montgomery County, that being the southeast corner of Lower Merion
    Township. The remainder of the District is in Delaware County and includes small areas of Upper Darby, Marple and Radnor Townships, all most all of Haverford Township and a small section of Marple.

The 148th & 149th Districts are all within Montgomery County, but the state representatives would have to coordinate with and represent the varied interests of and residents in many separate jurisdictions.

  • The 148th District includes 7 jurisdictions, the middle section of Lower Merion; all of Whitemarsh Township, Ambler, Narberth & Conshohocken Boroughs, more than half of Whitpain Township and two precincts in Plymouth Township.
  • The 149th District includes 5 different municipalities; a long, narrow band of Lower Merion along the Delaware County line; all of Upper Merion Township, West Conshohocken & Bridgeport Boroughs; and a very small section of West Norton Township.

Certainly some may argue that having more representatives is advantageous, but as a professional planner, and someone who is committed to and believes in our American ideal of democracy, I ask you to resist the “status quo.” Please, rethink this proposal and revise it to create more geographically compact districts. Districts that respect political subdivisions, promote competitiveness and that protect the voting rights of minorities.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Rep. Rush Holt: A Tireless Advocate for Israel


Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) is currently under attack by the right-wing Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), which has been caught multiple times advancing false charges against Democratic members of Congress. Salon found ECI’s attack ads to be “so misleading as to be essentially a lie”.

Holt is a true friend of Israel. Some of his recent pro-Israel actions include:

• Holt was part of a delegation to Israel that included Representatives Debbie Wasserman-Schulz (D-FL) and Steve Israel (D-NY). The delegation met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and with Jordan’s King Abdullah. During the trip, Holt declared that he will “continue to support the efforts to secure a just, permanent, and peaceful settlement that both guarantees Israel’s security and establishes a viable Palestinian state.”

• The New Jersey Jewish News reported on the status of Israel’s policies towards Gaza following Holt’s meeting with Netanyahu:

According to Holt, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vindicated the signers’ position during his meeting with Holt on Labor Day.

‘Bibi said to me, “You tell the people back home that I provided the humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza, just as you asked,”‘ said Holt, using Netanyahu’s nickname. ‘It makes the point that the huge flap over the “Gaza 54 Letter” called for humanitarian aid, and that is what Israel has done and what it is doing now.’

• Holt stood with Israel in the wake of the Flotilla incident.  

• Holt held an intimate meeting with members of the Orthodox Union. The Orthodox Union said following the meeting [emphasis added]:

“The Congressman was forceful in his articulation of his support and love for Israel citing his long track record of foreign aid funding, Iran sanctions work, and economic/scientific partnerships between the United States and Israel.”

“… [The] Congressman agreed with the Orthodox Union’s position on Jerusalem, passionately arguing that Jerusalem should be the undivided capital of Israel…”

“It was refreshing to hear the Congressman say that he answers to no PAC and no organization but to his own heart and history with Israel and the Jewish people. Our community was also overwhelmed by his support for an undivided Jerusalem and his insightful positions on the current direct talks.” – Maury Litwack, OU Deputy Director of Public Affairs

Holt’s positions are not just some generic pro-Israel statements, they are the positions of a tireless advocate for Israel and someone who has Israel in [his] heart.