By Suzanne Broughton
The new map of Congressional districts will be a significant improvement, provided it is actually implemented for the 2018 Congressional elections. But it solves only half the problem, and solves that half only temporarily! Half the problem because the Congressional districts are better, but we still have a gerrymandered state legislature. Temporarily because after the 2020 census the districts will be redrawn in 2021 the same way they were in 2011 – unless we change the system now!
Gerrymandering – the manipulation of election district lines – has been happening for over 200 years, but it has become a serious problem recently because computers have made it much more precise. Data mining reveals past election patterns, party registration, and many personal characteristics of individual voters. Precise computer mapping techniques allow politicians to draw districts – often having grotesque shapes – that group voters according to that data to produce the desired election outcome – currently 13 Republican districts and 5 Democrat districts despite voter registration and voting patterns for statewide offices favoring Democrats.
In Pennsylvania, Congressional redistricting is done as an ordinary bill in the legislature. The party in power draws the maps – limited only by the veto of the governor. The Pennsylvania Constitution requires that the maps for districts in the state legislature be drawn by a five-person commission: the majority and minority leaders of the state Senate and House plus a fifth person agreed upon by those four or chosen by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court when the four cannot agree. In the next redistricting cycle, the court will probably have a majority of Democrats, unlike the court in 2011.
A recent lawsuit challenged the constitutionality of the Congressional districts adopted in 2011. It introduced the public to the role of courts in resolving redistricting issues. It is instructive to look at a previous lawsuit that occurred in 2011. Amanda Holt became curious about the state legislative districts. The Pennsylvania Constitution also requires that the maps split no more municipalities than “absolutely necessary” and allows a citizen who thinks maps violate that provision to challenge the maps in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Amanda drew several maps that split many fewer municipalities. She challenged the official maps. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, even though it then had a Republican majority, agreed with Amanda and threw out the maps. But the effect of a lawsuit is limited. All that the court could do was to send the maps back to the five-member commission that created them for a redo. The commission drew a new set of maps that still did not satisfy Amanda. When she took to this second set to the court, it approved the maps. That lawsuit produced only a partial improvement at considerable expense to ordinary citizens.
In the current lawsuit challenging the 2011 Congressional maps, the Democrat majority court took a more aggressive position by placing a time limit on the production of a new map. But the court still had to send the redrawing process back to the politicians that created the original map. Since the legislature and the governor are of the opposite party, the time limit was not met. The court then drew its own map, a new procedure that has created more political controversy. This lawsuit did not take politics – of either party – out of the process of drawing maps! The most important point is that lawsuits only correct existing maps – sometimes only partially. They do not ensure more equitable maps in the future.
If there is no change, in 2021 after the next census, we will be stuck with these same two procedures for creating maps – more gerrymandered maps and probably more lawsuits. We can do better! We can create a new system that replaces both processes.
A proposed new system would have all the maps drawn by an independent commission of 11 voters in three groups: 4 registered with each major party and 3 registered as independents or with other parties. The commission could not include office holders, their spouses, lobbyists, or paid staff and officers of political parties. The commission could not use address of any individual, political affiliation of voters, previous election results or other mined data. It must hold public hearings and make the information being used to draft maps available to the public, probably on the Internet. Final approval of the maps would require at least one vote from each of the three groups. This proposal is in the legislature as Senate Bill 22 and (identical) House Bill 722. Since these bills will amend the Pennsylvania Constitution, one must pass in both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 legislative sessions and be approved by voters in a referendum. HB22 has 108 co-sponsors, more than half of the 203 members of the House, but is stuck in the House State Government Committee. The Senate State Government Committee has just scheduled a hearing for March 27 on SB22 and several competing redistricting bills.
You can find more information at http://www.fairdistrictspa.com. Join Fair Districts PA by clicking on the JOIN US button to receive email updates. Contact your legislators to support SB22 and HB722.
Suzanne Broughton is a past president of the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh and is currently a member of the Fair Districts PA speakers team.