Rep. Mark Cohen: Looking Toward the Democratic Convention

Rep. Mark Cohen

Rep. Mark Cohen

Looking ahead to the Democratic National Convention (DNC) next week in Philadelphia, we interviewed Rep. Mark Cohen, a delegate and a high political official. Cohen is a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from District 202 in Philadelphia. Having served in the House for 43 years, he holds the record for longest-serving state House member in Pennsylvania history. He also holds important positions, including chair of the vital House State Government Committee. [Read more…]

Phil. Jewish Voice Testifies at Joint House-Senate Redistricting Hearing

Testimony on Congressional Redistricting Given at Joint Hearing of the Pennsylvania State Senate Committee and State House Committee on State Government

Honorable Chairmen and members of the committees, thank you for holding these hearings and for inviting me to speak to you today. Holding hearings like this is an important first step in including the public in this crucial part of our democratic process.

Public oversight is a crucial part of the checks and balances necessary to ensure that redistricting process is not abused to advantage any political party, protect incumbents, or punish political rivals. Democracy requires competitive elections and representative government.


In a democracy, voters choose their representative to protect the common interest. Unfortunately, we have grown accustomed to a system of gerrymandering which turns democracy upside-down so that it is politicians who choose their voters strategically in order to advance their personal interests rather than the other way around.Packing the voters into a small number of districts in order to isolate them. (Figure 3) Cracking voters across multiple districts in order to dilute them. (Figure 4) And counting convicts where they are imprisoned rather than where they usually live. In a state like Pennsylvania where the process is totally controlled by a single political party, there may be a temptation to engage in partisan gerrymandering unless the media and the public are vigilant in their oversight.


Even when Democratic and Republican politicians share power, there is a possibility of mutually agreeable “sweetheart” gerrymandering as Democrats and Republicans engage in unseemly exchanges of constituents with the Democrat legislator offering up his Republican voters in exchange for his Republican colleague’s Democratic voters. (Figure 2)

In order to encourage public participation in the redistricting process, the Philadelphia Jewish Voice and its partners – the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and Common Cause Pennsylvania – hope to run a Redistricting Content similar to those run in Virginia and Ohio and being run in Michigan, Arizona and Massachusetts.

The idea is to make Azavea’s DistrictBuilder, Redistricting Software, and the underlying geographic, demographic and electoral data available freely on the Internet.  We now have the technology to allow everyone to have a say in the redistricting process.

The Pennsylvania Redistricting Contest will be judged by impartial numerical criteria measuring:
equality, continuity, integrity, competitiveness, proportionality and compactness.

  1. Equality. The principal of one-man, one-vote is enshrined in the Voting Rights Act and the Pennsylvania Constitution. We will not allow districts to deviate from their ideal population range and we will reward plans which promote higher standards of equality. Furthermore, we will require that majority-minority districts be maintained as required by the Voting Rights Act.
  2. Contiguity. Each district must be contiguous and not contain any parts which are connected to the other parts at a single point.
  3. Integrity. The Pennsylvania Constitution prohibits legislative districts which divide any “county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward…unless absolutely necessary.” By minimizing splits, voters understand easily who their representative is, and township and county officials do not have to interface with as many legislators. Our contest will penalize redistricting plans which unnecessarily divide these communities of interest.
  4. Competitiveness. Gerrymandering undermines the democratic process by creating uncompetitive districts. When 90% of an incumbent’s constituents belong to his political party, the incumbent is guaranteed reelection and no longer has any incentive to be responsive to the needs of his constituents. Non-competitive districts make everyone’s vote irrelevant and reduce accountability. Our contest will penalize plans which create these sorts of lopsided districts.
  5. Proportionality. The goal of partisan gerrymandering is to deliver a disproportionate share of the representation of the state into the hands of the political party controlling the redistricting process. In Pennsylvania, there are over 4 registered Democrats for every 3 registered Republicans, yet,Democrats only hold 37% of the Congressional delegation, 40% of the  State Senate, and 45% seats in the State House.

  6. Compactness. Bizarre shaped districts are a tell-tale sign that a map-makers is up to no good extending tentacles out of a district of their supporters to encompass his residence, or excising a community of opponents in order to secure his reelection. Our contest classify districts whose perimeter is disproportionately long compared to its area, and penalize redistricting plans accordingly.

Our hope is that the State Government Committees, Legislative Reapportionment Commission, and independent groups interested in political reform will support this initiative and help us make the DistrictBuilder software available to the general public.

Making tools like these available to the public as Florida and Alaska has value even in the absence of a contest.

However, we look forward to determining the best plan and promulgating it as an unbiased baseline against which the legislature’s plans can be compared.

More after the jump.
Thank you for your time. If you would like more details on our proposal and on the results of the Redistricting Contests held or being held in other states, please email me at [email protected]

Appendices

1. Michigan Citizens’ Redistricting Competition Rules and Procedures

2. Feedback from Virginia contest (Prof. Michael McDonald, George Mason University)

These winning student competition plans had an effect on the policy discourse. All three of the winning plans following the governor’s criteria were introduced a bills in the state legislature, and all students and faculty were recognized by the legislature and the governor. A winning congressional plan following the governor’s criteria draw by a team of William and Mary law school students became the basis of a plan adopted by the governor’s commission. This congressional plan was notable in that it reconfigured the state’s only voting rights district in such a way that made it substantially more compact, and thus enabled districts throughout the state to significantly improve their compactness. The concept of reconfiguring the voting rights district was implemented in a plan championed by the legislative black caucus,  which further created an African-American influence district in the Hampton Roads area. This was the plan adopted by the Democratically controlled Senate.

   Voting rights issues were also explored in the state legislative plans. Many students attempted to draw a Hispanic majority voting-age population district, but none were successful. A winning University of Virginia team Senate plan created six African-American majority voting-age
population districts, where the current plan only had five. However, these districts were barely above 50%, which was significantly below the percentages that received Department of Justice preclearance under Section 5 the previous decade. The governor’s commission explored if it was possible to increase the African-American voting age populations of these districts, but did not find it was possible to do so greatly. Although it was not part of the student competition, a House of Delegates plan drawn by Dr. McDonald for the commission demonstrated it is possible to draw thirteen African-American majority voting-age population districts, whereas the plans
adopted by the legislature only had twelve. This thirteenth district was discovered in the course of drawing districts that were compact and respected existing political boundaries, in accordance to the governor’s criteria.

   These plans provide evidence that greater public participation enables fresh approaches to drawing redistricting plans that may have otherwise gone undiscovered. Redistricting is an extremely complex problem. In a modestly sized state, there are more solutions than there are quarks in the universe (Altman and McDonald 2010). More eyes on the problem means more
opportunities to see new solutions. These plans illuminated paths to improve racial representation, thereby demonstrating that reformers’ goals may not necessarily be at odds with the voting rights community. We explore trade-offs among the competition criteria further in our analysis of the student competition, commission, and legislative plans.

Josephs: Republicans obstructing reform because of homophobia

— Amy Giancoli Hartman

See video courtesy of WGAL.

State Rep. Babette Josephs (D-Philadelphia) said she thinks she knows why House Republican leaders abruptly ended session this week and set plans into motion to penalize House Democrats: bigotry.

On Wednesday, House members were on the floor, ready to vote on several government reform bills, including several amendments that would address domestic partners of public officials and public employees under the state ethics and lobbyist disclosure laws, when House Majority Leader Mike Turzai abruptly ended session. He then called an impromptu meeting of the Rules Committee to reduce the number of Democrats in House standing committees by 10 percent and allow the majority leader to table any amendment to legislation arbitrarily for the rest of the 2011-12 session.

More after the jump.
Josephs said that she believes the Republicans are trying to keep from having to bring up any issues that run counter to their agenda and that is what caused these strong-arm tactics.

“Upon reflection, I believe of all the amendments we put up for consideration only one or two really got stuck in the Republicans’ craw,” Josephs said. “Those had to do with extending prohibitions and disclosure requirements to domestic partners of lobbyists and state elected and appointed officials. Some extreme right-wing Republicans were in a quandary. If they voted against the amendments, they would be saying that a state representative, for example, could use his or her office to direct a contract toward a domestic partner and get away with it. That is hardly reform. If they voted for the domestic partnership amendments they would be legitimizing intimate sexual relationships other than marriage, and might, in words of one extremist, “advance the homosexual agenda.

“In order to protect their right-wing members from having to cast a hard vote, Republican leaders attempted to shut down the entire democratic process.”

“It’s incredible to think that business in the House chamber may have been brought to a halt by a few amendments that related to domestic partners. I never knew that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered citizens had that much power.”

Josephs said the amendment process has been set up in the House so that the rank-and-file members had more input on legislation. In fact, her Republican counterpart in the House State Government Committee, Chairman Daryl Metcalfe, refused to consider amendments to these reform bills when they were reviewed in the committee, and told Josephs that Democrats would have the opportunity to offer them on the floor.

“We were denied that opportunity to amend bills on the floor Wednesday,” she said. “And now, if the Rules change is adopted Monday, representation of our constituents in the legislative process will be limited and our ideas and proposals will be withheld from consideration. And we’re the ones being called obstructionists?”

“Is this how the Republicans see good government? Every legislator elected by the people has a right to participate in the legislative process, even those in the minority party; all of whom represent Republican citizens as well as independents, Libertarians, Greens and Democrats. We have taken steps to improve government accountability and access over the last four years. Our amendments to this package of bills were a sincere effort to continue that progress. And, we have our own package of good government legislation offered to improve trust and accountability. Let’s welcome debate and a vote on these proposals so we can continue moving forward rather than back.”