Now that the Pennsylvania General Assembly has returned from summer recess, advocacy groups, like Fair Districts PA and March on Harrisburg, are intensifying their fight for redistricting reform. Explaining the importance of their mission, Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA, said at a recent press conference in Harrisburg:
For the first time in generations, many of our fellow citizens are questioning the underlying premises of democracy itself. … We feel our votes no longer count and our voices are no longer heard. When we look for causes, we see our gerrymandered districts and our lack of choice at the polls.
In response, Kuniholm and others are pushing to amend the Pennsylvania state constitution to require voting districts to be drawn by an independent redistricting commission, in contrast to the partisan system that is in place now. Under the current system, state legislative redistricting in Pennsylvania is the responsibility of a five-member legislative commission, with four of the members being the majority and minority leaders of the General Assembly, or others acting on their behalf. Although the fifth member — the chair of the commission — is to be named jointly by the other four, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has always stepped in to make that selection because the other four members could never agree on a choice. In the case of congressional districts, district lines are created and voted on in the state House and Senate and signed by the governor.
Among the supporters of removing politics from redistricting is Dr. Daniel Loeb, publisher of The Philadelphia Jewish Voice, who has testified on redistricting in legislative hearings and spoken about it before community groups. In a recent television interview with Bonnie Squires — board president of The Philadelphia Jewish Voice and host of the local show “Bonnie’s Beat” — Loeb explained the process of redistricting and how it has been abused by both parties.
Redistricting takes place every 10 years after the national census, when states redraw the lines of state and congressional voting districts in order to reflect changes in population. The next census will take place in 2020. In many states, like Pennsylvania, the lines are drawn by political representatives, leading to manipulation of the system for political gain. In these cases, the goal, explained Kuniholm during her press conference, is “to protect incumbents and to control the levers of power to set the legislative agenda in Harrisburg and our nation’s capital.”
The result is a landscape of convoluted districts — one of the most infamous being Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district — that have no geometric or democratic logic because they are the result of partisan gerrymandering. During his television interview, Loeb described some of the tactics used to create these districts: “Packing” concentrates voters from the opposing party into only a few districts. “Cracking” slices up geographic areas, distributing opposing-party voters into different districts to dilute their political impact. Sometimes Republicans and Democrats even cooperate in bipartisan gerrymandering by cutting deals to safeguard incumbents in both parties.
Loeb explained that efforts to change this undemocratic system are underway. Gerrymandering cases are winding their way through the courts in several states, including Pennsylvania. And, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to hear a Wisconsin case on this subject in its upcoming term. In addition, several states have created independent redistricting commissions through legislation, which is what advocacy groups in Pennsylvania are trying to attain through Senate Bill 22 and House Bill 722. These bills propose an amendment on redistricting to the state constitution.
Although 96 members — almost half — of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives have co-sponsored HB 722, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler County), chairman of the Pennsylvania State House State Government Committee, has refused to bring the bill to a hearing. Since the Pennsylvania General Assembly does not use an automatic calendar, committee leaders have the power to determine when and if a bill will come up for consideration.
Metcalfe’s counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Mike Folmer, chairman of the Pennsylvania State Senate State Government Committee, has temporarily tabled SB 22 on the grounds that the issue of redistricting is now being considered in the courts. But according to lawyers consulted by Fair Districts PA, there is no legal basis for this self-imposed delay.
Informational programs on redistricting reform, opportunities for citizen lobbying in Harrisburg, and other events will be held throughout the fall. Consult the Philadelphia Jewish Voice calendar for listings.