Campaign to end gerrymandering takes center stage in Clinton County

LOCK HAVEN — Rose Reeder and Joan Heller have achieved a rare feat: They got elected leaders in all 29 of Clinton County’s municipalities to mutually agree on an issue.

That issue is gerrymandering: The manipulation of boundaries of an electoral constituency to favor one political party.

The two women representing Fair Districts PA, along with fellow supporters Patricia Hancock, Sandi DeBonis and Dan Reeder, visited every council and board of township supervisors in the county over the preceding weeks and months to seek their approval of a resolution opposing gerrymandering, and they were successful.

“What we are seeing in Clinton County today is government as it should be. By signing these resolutions, our leaders demonstrate they are representing us in this effort for redistricting reform,” said Reeder, who is this county’s coordinator for Fair Districts PA.

“It’s very important for people to understand that this is a nonpartisan issue. We are not trying to benefit one party over the other. We’re trying to protect all voters,” she added.

The women give credit to the municipal leaders “for their work to protect voters’ rights.”

The resolution reads, in part, “The citizens … deserve a fair, fully transparent, impartial and depoliticized process of the decennial drawing of state legislature and congressional districts of near equal population; and … such gerrymandering of legislative and congressional districts has worked at times to the detriment of our representative democracy.”

Pennsylvania is considered one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation.

Last June, the League of Women Voters and 20 state voters filed suit against the state, claiming the Republican party’s re-alignment of the congressional map violated the state Constitution’s protections on freedom of expression and equal protection because it “deliberately dilutes the influence of Democratic voters in the political process.”

In 2012, Republicans were able to win 13 of the state’s 18 congressional seats, and were able to retain a similar share of seats in 2014 and 2016 even though the party’s share of the statewide vote only went up by a few points. In Pennsylvania, the plaintiffs want the state court to declare the 2011 Congressional map unconstitutional, halt its use in future congressional elections and order the creation of new maps.

Despite formal appeals for delays, that case is to be heard starting Dec. 11 before Commonwealth Court.

Among those who had sought a delay was the attorney for state Republican leaders, including state Sen. Joseph Scarnati, R-25, whose district includes Clinton County.

Among GOP leaders’ arguments is that the state court should wait for a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on a similar redistricting case out of the state of Wisconsin. In the Wisconsin case, a panel of three federal judges ruled 2 to 1 that Wisconsin’s leaders went too far in using a secretive process for drawing the state legislative maps after the 2010 Census.

There’s a separate case, Agre vs.Wolf (as in Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf), in which four Pennsylvania citizens allege in a suit filed in federal district court that the state’s 2011 congressional map is a partisan gerrymander. The plaintiffs also assert that the 2011 plan unlawfully places citizens into congressional districts based upon their likely voting preferences. That trial is to begin this coming Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Fair Districts PA’s ultimate goal is “creation of a truly independent citizens redistricting commission devoid of political motivation or partisanship (to) ensure a fair, transparent, and accurate legislative and congressional redistricting process that respects political subdivisions, prohibits districts from being drawn to favor or discriminate against a political party or candidate, requires the use of impartial and sound methodology when setting district boundaries, requires public input and fully complies with the constitutional requirement that ‘no county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward’ be divided ‘unless absolutely necessary.'”

Two bills, HB 722 in the House and SB 22 in the Senate, would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to establish an independent citizens’ commission to redistrict congressional as well as State House and Senate districts. State Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Clinton-Centre counties, is a co-sponsor of HB722.

Reeder and Heller said their job and that of Fair Districts PA has only just begun.

They’re going to hold a press conference on the steps of the Clinton County Courthouse at 230 East Water St. downtown at 11 a.m. next Thursday, Dec. 7, to press their points and announce the 100-percent participation in the campaign by county and municipal leaders.

“Clinton County officials will join citizens and volunteers from Fair Districts PA to announce all 29 municipalities and the county commissioners passed resolutions supporting redistricting reform. Republicans and Democrats alike have set aside party politics to come together in a unified voice to make sure every single vote in Pennsylvania counts,” Reeder said.

Reeder said it’s hoped that the approved resolutions will “go a long way in convincing the state committee chairmen to bring these bills out of the State Government Committee to the floor for a vote.”

Among those expected to attend next Thursday are Jamie R. Mogil, state coordinator for resolutions and strategy for Fair Districts PA, the county commissioners, various municipal leaders and citizens.