Support sought for changing redistricting

LOCK HAVEN — Local residents involved in a group that is determined to balance the power of politics in Pennsylvania attended the Clinton County commissioners’ work session Monday to support changing how Pennsylvania redraws its legislative and congressional districts for representation and voting.

Redistricting occurs every 10 years based on the U.S. Census. It is the process by which the boundaries of elective districts for the state House, the state Senate and U.S. House are periodically redrawn to maintain equal representation on the basis of population.

Article II, Section 17 of the Pennsylvania Constitution provides that Pennsylvania House and Senate districts be drawn by a five-member redistricting commission. Each of the four legislative leaders (majority and minority leader in each legislative house) may choose one commissioner, and those four commissioners choose a fifth to serve as chair, who may not hold paid public office. If the first four commissioners cannot agree on a chair within 45 days, the state Supreme Court will appoint a fifth commissioner to serve as chair.

Pennsylvania’s congressional lines are drawn by the state Legislature, as a regular statute, subject to gubernatorial veto.

Many argue that the current process – called gerrymandering because of the partisan politics involved – gives party leaders enormous power over rank-and-file members of their respective caucuses. Redistricting is a tool by which a member who proves to be too independent may be punished, usually by drawing him or her out of a so-called safe district into one dominated by the other party.

Fair Districts PA is a statewide organization working to educate the public on the process of redrawing districts every 10 years and is making recommendations for changes in the laws governing the process.

Rose Reeder, a local spokesperson for Fair Districts PA, charged that the current process in which political party leaders have a large say in the way the lines are drawn undermines the basic foundation of Democracy.

The Pennsylvania process, Reeder said, actually creates districts with the intent of wasting votes so that voters of one party or the other are given a heavier weight than if the election occurred based upon votes gathered across the state.

“This is a conflict of interest, a little like allowing the fox to guard the henhouse,” Reeder said. “Politicians are choosing their voters and not voters choosing their politician.”

According to Reeder, when politicians oversee the process, the legislative lines are drawn to keep some voters together or to separate them into different districts, to give some groups a voice – and to make sure other voices aren’t being heard.

The results of partisan redistricting include rewarding extreme positions rather than collaborative solutions, gridlock, shutting out new voices, and making accountable government almost impossible by allowing legislators to run without competition, she said.

That’s because politicians have discovered that the way the lines are drawn determines who controls the governing body, shapes legislative priorities and determines which bills get passed into law and which never receive a vote, she added.

Around 60 years ago, districts were compact.

But about 15 years ago, the lines began to travel, she said, veering away from party strongholds and gathering in other areas ruled by larger populations from the other party.

Eventually, according to the Electoral Integrity Project, Pennsylvania became the third worst state for election integrity, largely due to strategic district mapping.

Reeder said an independent redistricting commission would go a long way toward restoring positive changes in state government.

For example, she said, in 2012 Democrats represented 51 percent of the population, but only five of 18 seats for election.

She said that, when officials can remain aloof and be able to ignore their constituents by not holding town meetings, for example, accountability to voters decreases.

There are four bills in the Pennsylvania House and Senate that are designed to resolve this situation, Reeder said.

An independent commission would be drawn from a pool of Republicans, Democrats and Independent voters.

The commission would be liable to hold various public hearings and gain significant input from voters on how districts should be drawn to balance representation and “balance the scales,” she said.

“A fair and transparent democratic process values every voter,” Reeder said, “No packing or cracking … just one person, one vote.”

Reeder pointed to Republican Commissioner Pete Smeltz and said he has often said, once he is elected, he represents the public and not just the party.

Smeltz said the issue was discussed briefly at a County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania m eeting.

The CCAP will likely stay far away from any recommendation on redistricting, Smeltz told the group, unless it starts to feel the heat of its member commissioners.

Smeltz noted that past state legislative redistricting saw the majority of Clinton County under the leadership of a state senator from Bellefonte, then one from Johnstown, and now from Brockway in Jefferson County.

“Bottom line,” Smeltz said, “Why shouldn’t the process be fair?”

“The process has become distorted,” Commissioner Paul Conklin agreed. “We should have another look at and support what’s fair and right.”

The group asked the commissioners to consider passing a resolution supporting the change and advocating for reform with CCAP.

Smeltz, Conklin and Commissioner Jeff Snyder promised to consider the request.

But Snyder, pointing to the political gridlock that already exists in both Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., and doubts over lawmakers in Harrisburg being able to achieve any concensus or meaningful resolutions, wondered aloud if the General Assembly could ever get its act together when it comes to redistricting reform.

He also warned that any effort to that end could result in a system worse than the one we already have.

In Pennsylvania, any change would need a Constitutional amendment initiated and approved by two successive legislative sessions, then approved by voters in a public referendum.

First passage in the 2017-2018 session would still allow time to have a citizens’ commission in place for the 2020 redistricting cycle.