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Pennsylvania legislature seeks to reform redistricting

In most U.S. states, including Pennsylvania, state legislatures determine how to redraw congressional and state legislative district maps every ten years after the census reveals population shifts. And while Democrats have been able to draw redistricting maps in their favor in states like Illinois and Maryland, the Republican Party has been more successful in doing so in Pennsylvania. This is called partisan gerrymandering, and it was demonstrated in 2016 when Republicans won the Presidential election in Pennsylvania with just 48% of the vote and the U.S. Senate election with only 49% of the vote, but 72% of Pennsylvania’s U.S. House races.

Unusual circumstances have led to bipartisan reform bills gaining support in the Pennsylvania Senate and House of Representatives. Democrats have seen the damage that gerrymandering has done to their party, and many Republicans worry that partisan gerrymandering will switch to favoring Democrats in the future. This is because the individual holding the crucial swing vote on the Legislative Reapportionment Commission is chosen by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court if the other members (the four party leaders in the State House and Senate) fail to agree on someone. While the court was dominated by Republican judges in 2011 during the last redistricting process, Democrats now form a majority on the court, and they could ensure a Democratic majority on the commission if the process is not reformed by 2021.

Why are so many Democrats seeking bipartisan reform rather than seizing this opportunity to gain power? One reason is that while legislative redistricting is currently controlled by the five member commission, congressional redistricting is done by the whole state legislature, which is currently led by a GOP majority.

Other reasons why reform is gaining bipartisan support are that rank-and-file legislators are bothered by the power that leadership has over them, and some politicians might simply believe that gerrymandering is a flaw in our democracy which must be addressed.

State Representative Dan Frankel, Chairman of the Democratic Caucus and the representative of Carnegie Mellon University students registered to vote on campus, is a co-sponsor of House Bill 722. The bill, along with the nearly identical Senate Bill 22, has significant bipartisan support and would hand redistricting power over to an eleven-member commission of citizens (four Democrats, four GOP, three Independent/Other). Maps would have to be approved by seven members of the commission, and that would have to include at least one vote from each of the three partisan groups. The commission would not be allowed to consider voter registration or previous election data, making it difficult for the commission to ensure partisan fairness when drawing the maps.

State Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, a Democrat who is the other state legislator of Carnegie Mellon Tartans registered to vote on campus, is the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 767. This alternative bill, which has far fewer co-sponsors, all of whom are Democrats, would only reform the congressional redistricting process, not the state legislative one. Of the two current processes, state legislative redistricting is the only one which gives Senator Costa significant personal power, since he would serve (and be financially compensated for serving) on the Legislative Reapportionment Commission under current law. Senator Costa’s bill would maintain his Democrat and leadership advantages in state legislative redistricting while eliminating the Republican and rank-and-file advantages in Congressional redistricting.

Despite the conflict of interest, Costa’s bill has some advantages. Unlike bills affecting state legislative redistricting, it could pass without having to go through the constitutional amendment process. The bill would establish a small citizen commission (two Democrats, two GOP, one Independent/Other), and unlike the bipartisan bills would allow the commission to consider voter registration and past election data. Any four out of the five members would have to agree on a map.

The reform plans contain similar fail-safes in case the citizen commissions fail to agree on a map. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court would appoint a “Special Master” to draw a map which the court would then either approve or reject. The “Special Master” would have to be a faculty member specializing in Geographic Information Systems at a college or university in Pennsylvania. So it is possible that one of Carnegie Mellon’s GIS professors could have considerable political power in the future. A similar procedure has been used in the past by other states, such as Connecticut and Virginia.

You can find more information on redistricting reform in Pennsylvania at fairdistrictspa.com.