Our State Legislature, one of the largest and best-compensated in the country, has once again failed to deal even ineffectively with gerrymandering reform. There has been a lot of activity over the past several years by thousands of citizens across the Commonwealth in an effort to move meaningful gerrymandering reform forward. It was especially important to settle this now because Pennsylvania is expected to lose a seat in the House of Representatives, which will require district maps to be redrawn.
Sadly, our Legislators haven’t done much with any of the proposals. In 2018, the PA Supreme Court got so frustrated with them that they ruled that new Congressional boundaries needed to be drawn. They were and our Congressional delegation is now evenly split, 9 – 9 Democrats and Republicans as opposed to the previous 13 – 5 in favor of the Republicans. This even split of the Congressional delegation far more accurately reflects the voter registration and population of the State.
You would think that this would demonstrate to the legislators that fairly drawn district boundaries lead to fair elections. You would be wrong! There are still a number of House and Senate members who are angry that the Supreme Court intervened. One State representative has stated that this action caused him to “disengage” from the entire gerrymandering reform effort.
Last session, the House and Senate considered two bills, HB 2638 and SB 1242, known as the Legislative and Congressional Redistricting Act (LACRA) that would have provided for clear, measurable district drawing criteria and shine some light on the whole district-boundary-drawing process. They made some progress, but not enough to reach the governor’s desk. Senator Mastriano, a member of the Senate Local Government Committee, voted against reporting the bill out of committee. He was one of three who voted not to report the bill out. Four voice messages left with his Harrisburg office to learn his reasons for not voting to support the bill have not been returned.
In one positive development, public opinion and pressure was responsible for the temporary failure of HB 38 which, believe it or not would have gerrymandered the appellate courts of Pennsylvania. Yes, it’s true. After years of stonewalling real gerrymandering reform, House and Senate Republicans thought the solution was to gerrymander the courts and elect our appellate court judges by district. Take that, Philadelphia and Allegheny County (Pittsburgh.)
This is such a good idea that it would have made Pennsylvania the third state in the country to do this! Yep, that’s right, the third! Fortunately, people and organizations across the state, including just about every group of lawyers out there, spoke up and exposed this idea for what it is: a petulant response by Republicans to the State Supreme Court, under Democratic control, ruling against them in 2018 and requiring new, more equitable districts to be drawn. Their anger hasn’t lessened over the years.
The Republicans in the State House and Senate continue to promise to move on genuine reform which would provide more transparency to the redistricting process. They promise but take no action.
Two bills will soon be introduced as HB 22 and SB 222. They would do the following:
• Establish a user-friendly website for free public access to data, maps, and all redistricting information.
• Require multiple public hearings and after redistricting plans are approved.
• Require meetings that are open to public, held at convenient times and are live streamed.
• Mandate compact and contiguous federal and state districts.
• Add enforceable limits on how counties can be divided.
• Keeps communities of interest intact.
Does this legislation have any chance of passage? Don’t bet the grocery money on it! It’s only necessary because the legislature took no action on real gerrymandering reform over the past several years. It’s simply unrealistic to think that they’ll pass this now.
Also, by now the state usually would have received the 2020 Census date and could begin the redistricting process. Sadly, because the previous federal administration decided not to count all those who lived in a municipality fairly the data isn’t expected to be available until late July at the earliest. That needed to be litigated and fixed.
It’s sad that in a country that pioneered free and open elections, we are now taking steps backward to make it more difficult for folks to vote in districts that are stacked against legitimate winners. What’s likely to occur in redistricting seats in the state legislature is that we’ll follow the same process in 2021 that we followed in 2001 and 2011: the House and Senate Majority and Minority leaders will make up four of the five members of the committee required to draw new district lines.
They won’t be able to agree on a fifth member so one will be appointed by the State Supreme Court. The difference this time is that the Court will be controlled by Democrats rather than Republicans as it was before. It’s very naive to believe that Democrats won’t engage in the partisan gerrymandering that Republicans engaged in the last two times we redrew district boundary lines.
As those great philosophers, John Lennon and Paul McCartney might say: “Ob la di, ob-la-da, life goes on, bra.”
Steve Niebler was born and raised in Gettysburg.
He is retired after working at the Adams County Office for Aging, Inc. 34 years, serving as the Director for 31 of those years.
Niebler serves on the Boards of the Gettysburg Area Recreation Authority (GARA), the Adams County Housing Authority (ACHA), Healthy Adams Bike & Pedestrian Inc. (HABPI), and the Cumberland Township Sewer Authority.
He is married to Faye Niebler, has two grown children, and two of the cutest grandkids in the world!