Much discussion in the local and national press has focused on the unfairness of allowing elected officials to draw the boundaries for their districts, effectively allowing them to choose their voters instead of their voters choosing them. When our elected officials don’t need to worry about our votes, the issues we care about—healthcare, women’s reproductive rights, caregiving, gender equity and others—take a back seat. Our representatives answer to their party leaders, not to their voters.
This practice, known as gerrymandering, has been elevated to a science, thanks to software technology that gulps big data and then spits out safe state legislative and congressional districts for incumbents. The seventh Congressional District, which looks like “Goofy Kicking Donald,” is an often cited example, but there are many throughout Pennsylvania.
The League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit in June alleging that Pennsylvania’s congressional map was illegally drawn. The lawsuit claims that the legislature’s Republican majority drew the congressional map to benefit the GOP by packing Democrats into five congressional districts, and then spreading out the rest of the Democrats among the remaining districts.
“This case is about one of the greatest threats to American democracy today: partisan gerrymandering,” the League argued in its complaint. As an example, it cites the 2012 election when Republicans won 49 percent of the statewide congressional vote, but took 72 percent of the congressional seats (13 out of 18).
Independent Citizens Commission Should Draw the Lines
The lawsuit about how the current maps were drawn in 2010 is expected to be resolved before the end of 2018 because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court intervened to expedite the case, instructing the Commonwealth Court to hear and offer a decision by December 31. So how can future legislative boundaries be fairly drawn?
There are currently identical bipartisan bills in the Pennsylvania Senate (SB22) and the House (HB722) that would, if passed, create an Independent Citizens Commission to draw the boundaries following the 2020 census.
Briefly, here’s how the Independent Citizens Commission would work:
- The 11-member commission would be comprised of four non-office-holding individuals from the largest political party in Pennsylvania and four from the second largest party as well as three individuals not affiliated with either party. These individuals and members of their families could not have held public office in the previous five years nor served as a staff member, consultant or lobbyist for the previous five years.
- The commission would draw congressional and state legislative district maps equal in population and respecting political subdivisions such as townships and municipalities. The commission couldn’t use data regarding personal voting records.
- Commission meetings would be open to the public and four public hearings would be held to gather citizen reactions to preliminary maps.
- After the final maps are drawn and made public, four more public hearings would be held.
- When the commission approves the final plan, it must have at least one “yes” vote from each of the three groups. No legislator or governor approval is necessary.
These bills makes sense, yet they are being held up by the chairs of the State Government Committee in both the House and Senate, despite having 13 cosponsors in the Senate and 98 in the House. The gridlock illustrates the necessity of the legislation.
Time Is Critical
These bills would require an amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution and so they must pass both the Pennsylvania House and Senate in two consecutive legislative sessions and then be approved by voters. Time is critical because the decennial census, and hence redistricting, is only a few short years away.
We need to make a difference by spreading the word about this crucial issue. We should call our state representatives and we should ask the Bucks County Commissioners and our township supervisors to pass resolutions in support of the bipartisan fair districting legislation. (So far, 11 townships in Bucks County have passed this resolution.) Visit the Fair Districts Pa website to learn more about how you help.
Let’s move our agenda to the front seat. Let’s make sure our voices are heard.
Kathie Beans is an individual partner of BCWAC.