With stories of exasperating government dysfunction on the rise, it is not surprising that so many citizens feel increasingly anxious that hyper-partisan representatives can no longer work together to solve problems effectively. With this as a backdrop, many advocates of good governance across the country have sounded the alarm over what they see as a root cause of this dysfunction — the centuries-old practice of gerrymandering that has had an increasingly dramatic effect on many recent elections as party leaders now use data and mapping technologies to redraw electoral districts to their distinct advantage.
The courts have been asked to weigh in on the issue, and this debate has garnered much press attention. The US Supreme Court seems to be searching for a valid measure it can use to determine when gerrymandering is so extreme it warrants court intervention. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled to order the redrawing of the state’s Congressional district map to ensure greater fairness, but reaction to this decision predictably further exacerbated partisan divisions. Also, the district maps will be redrawn again after the 2020 Census, and so the debate will rage on.
A better long-term solution to this vexing problem is to undertake reform of the redistricting process itself. Take a look at a growing grassroots movement that has gained traction around the country that aims to take the reins of redistricting away from party leaders looking to perpetuate their own firm grasp on power and instead place redistricting in the hands of independent citizens commissions that are impartial, transparent, and accountable. In Pennsylvania, this effort is led by Fair Districts PA, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group of volunteers founded in late 2016. In a short time, Fair Districts has flexed impressive grassroots muscle, hosting over 400 public meetings attended by over 18,000 people, collecting over 27,000 petition signatures, and mobilizing local efforts that have resulted in the passage of resolutions in support of redistricting reform in 200 municipalities and 16 counties across the state. Legislation that would amend the state constitution to make an independent citizens redistricting commission a reality in Pennsylvania has been proposed in both the Senate (SB22) and House (HB722), and each has garnered significant bipartisan support. SB22 now has 21 cosponsors, while HB722 has attracted the support of 110 legislators, making it one of the most sponsored House bills this legislative session.
Nonetheless, these bills have stalled in committee in both chambers, and passage must be accomplished by the end of the current session in order for the amendment process to be finalized in time for redistricting after the 2020 Census. The Senate State Government Committee, after months of inaction, finally held a public hearing on March 27, signaling some willingness to move forward on the issue. However, the House State Government Committee chairman, Daryl Metcalfe, along with Speaker Mike Turzai, have shown no willingness to even open the issue to discussion. Fair Districts PA Chair Carol Kuniholm gave voice to the frustration of many at the Senate hearing, asking “Does this body believe the state Constitution? Does it believe that we the people have the right to alter and reform our government, or does this body represent the party leadership who say ‘No.’ That is the question.”
Pennsylvania is regularly cited as one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country, and the 2016 Electoral Integrity Project report identified PA as among the lowest states in electoral integrity. Isn’t it time for us to demand that we be on the forefront of needed reform? As citizens we must weigh in on this debate and urge our state legislators to demand that SB22 and HB722 be brought to the floor for a public debate and subsequent vote. Amending the state Constitution is indeed a heavy lift, but the ability of our legislature to forge the consensus necessary to address the challenges ahead is at stake. It’s time to restore public confidence in Pennsylvania state government by enacting redistricting reform.
Eileen Walkowiak is an individual partner of the Coalition.