Stressing the urgency to act soon, a bipartisan, bicameral legislative work group Wednesday announced agreement on redistricting reform principles and said they hope to reach consensus on a specific bill soon. The group urged the inclusion of these principles into any redistricting reform bill.
“The rallying cry is our shared determination to jettison politics from the redistricting process,” said Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton), who has introduced legislation (Senate Bill 484) that would establish an 11-member independent citizens’ commission to draw state and congressional district boundaries. “As we advance in our effort to build a legislative consensus, I am pleased that our group is calling for an open, transparent and publicly accountable redistricting process.”
Rep. David Parker (R-Monroe) added, "My home county has been the poster child for the problems associated with our system of legislative redistricting. For 12 years, Monroe County was split among six Pennsylvania Senate districts, even though the population justified one or two. This was corrected in the latest round of redistricting, but to ensure that this does not occur again to any of the Commonwealth's counties, my bill (House Bill 1835 not online yet) contains language to prevent counties from being carved up to the point where they lose representation. The measure also establishes a citizen commission and new updated standards to ensure a more open, transparent and fair process.”
In honing in on what specific bill the work group will support, its members announced that any reform measure should contain these seven core principle:
— Assign redistricting authority to an independent citizens commission
— Reform both congressional and legislative redistricting.
— Prohibit districts from being drawn to favor or discriminate against a political party or candidate;
— Use sound methodology when setting district boundaries;
— Ensure transparency in the process with meaningful opportunities for active public participation
— Make all districts as equal in population as possible with a minimum range of deviation; and
— Respect political subdivisions and communities of interest.
Formed last June, the group said it hopes to soon hammer out an agreement on legislation that can pass both the House and Senate.
To get a new redistricting process in place before the next redistricting round in 2020, lawmakers must pass legislation twice to change the state’s constitution – within two consecutive two-year legislative sessions. The proposal must also be approved by voters via referendum.
Responding to local government leaders who criticize the process for needlessly splitting municipalities between different districts, the group said it is urging municipal leaders around the state to pass resolutions in support of redistricting reform.
Group members said the last Legislative Reapportionment Commission largely ignored sound redistricting tenants such as compactness and community of interest. After the state Supreme Court ruled that the commission’s maps were “contrary to law,” lawmakers were forced to go back to the drawing board.
This culminated in the reapportionment process finishing up two years late, causing confusion and the need to use of the old maps for the 2012 elections.
Many members of the work group also criticized the current system for producing Pennsylvania’s many oddly shaped, gerrymandered districts. They claim the current system is unfair, discourages competition and is used by political powerbrokers to protect allies and isolate opponents.
With huge majorities of Democratic or Republican voters packed into districts, critics also claim that primary elections have become more important than general elections in those regions, producing lawmakers who are more likely to toe the party line and less willing to negotiate and find common ground on issues.
“The protracted budget impasse is a good example of what can happen when so many legislators are politically hesitant about supporting negotiated agreements because they are afraid of being ‘primaried,’” Sen. Boscola said. “During the 112th Congress, a meager seven members accounted for 98 percent of cross-party votes. The public needs to understand that gridlock is just a symptom. Our corrupt reapportionment system is the disease.”
Other lawmakers at the news conference included Senators Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin), John Eichelberger (R-Blair), Mario Scavello (R-Monroe), John Blake (D-Lackawanna), John Wozniak (D-Cambria) and Representatives Mary Jo Daley (D-Montgomery), Pam DeLissio (D-Philadelphia), Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland), Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) and Mike Carroll (D-Luzerne).
Also on hand were advocates and organizations that favor redistricting reform.Carol Kuniholm, executive director of the Fair Districts PA coalition said, “We applaud the legislators who are working to make our electoral mapping process transparent, impartial and fair. We encourage public support for this effort and ask all of our legislators to help restore a government of, by and for the people.”