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Building Innovation is a collection of stories by 90.5 fm WESA reporters about the Pittsburgh region focusing on efficient government operation, infrastructure and transportation, innovative practices, energy and environment and neighborhoods and community.

Legislation Aims To Eliminate Gerrymandering In Pennsylvania

Every 10 years a fight explodes in Harrisburg over how to redraw state House, Senate and U.S. Congressional districts, with Republican and Democratic lawmakers wrangling over what often becomes a map full of oddly shaped districts drawn in an effort to keep one party or the other in power. 

State Rep. Ted Harhai (D-Westmoreland) wants to end the fight by creating a new independent panel to redraw the districts following the decennial U.S. census.

“What we are trying to do is remove the politicians, number one, and the political pressure that would be put on them for drawing these boundaries,” Harhai said.

Currently, districts are redrawn by a five-member committee and then approved by the state Legislature. Each of the heads of the four legislative caucuses names one of the committee members, and then those four members choose a fifth member.

Under Harhai’s legislation, the process would begin with a six-member Applicant Review Panel made up of elected officials and political insiders. That group would then review applications from Pennsylvanians who are not part of any the political apparatus, narrowing that pool to 20 Republicans, 20 Democrats and 20 individuals not registered to either party. 

“It disqualifies an elected official or anyone on a campaign committee or anybody affiliated with a political party committee, any lobbyist or any staff or elected official or anybody from the judiciary,” said Harhai of the stipulations contained in the bill on who can apply to be in the pool.

Three Republicans, three Democrats and two others are then chosen at random from the list of 60 names.  The newly-formed group of eight members then would select two more Republicans, two more Democrats and two individuals that do not align with either party to complete the 14 member panel that will eventually draw the districts.

With a recent Supreme Court decision upholding the creation of a similar independent redistricting committee in Arizona, there are now six states with such panels. (Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana and Washington).

“We have a lot of people claiming they are reformers out here in Harrisburg and I would like to see a lot of those people step to the plate and support this legislation,” said Harhai, who knows it will not be able to get his legislation passed.

The speaker of the House has not responded to a request for comment on the legislation.

Harhai hopes the new system would eliminate the “gerrymandering” of districts by removing politicians from the picture.

Pennsylvania House and Senate maps drawn following the 2010 census were challenged in court and the process was so delayed that the new districts were not implemented until the 2014 election.

HB 1344 retains language requiring the districts to be as compact as possible with equal populations while trying not to divide political boundaries whenever possible.

The measure has been sent to House State Government Committee but has not yet been called for a vote.