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Gerrymandering Battle Draws A Crowd In PA

Dave Davies
Hundreds pack the auditorium of Upper Dublin High School for a discussion of gerrymandering hosted by the group Fair Districts PA.

Could a citizens' group defy tradition and change Pennsylvania politics?

Fair Districts PA, which has taken on the issue of gerrymandering in state political boundaries, is at least making some noise.

Fair Districts PA is a coalition of groups that includes the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and the conservative Commonwealth Foundation among others.

When it called a meeting at Upper Dublin High School in Montgomery County last week, more than 600 people showed up.

Not only that, they listened intently to a 40-minute presentation by Carol Kuniholm of the League of Women Voters on the harmful effects of how political parties draw district lines to gain advantage.

One example she cited was Montgomery County, which has enough people to merit its own congressional representative.

"Your county should have one congressional district, and your congressman should be thinking about nothing but you," she said. "Instead, you have five congressional districts, and I promise your congressmen are not thinking about you."

How it works

In Pennsylvania, congressional districts are drawn by leaders in the state Legislature; when Harrisburg is dominated by Republicans, that benefits the GOP.

Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District in the western Philadelphia suburbs is one of the most bizarre-looking anywhere, literally a poster child of gerrymandering.

At one point, it's just about 300 feet wide, and it's been featured in stories across the country.

Gerrymandering is a bipartisan tradition, though. In Maryland, Democrats have crafted some twisted districts for their benefit.

Many poor cities in Pennsylvania are carved into multiple districts and suffer for the lack of dedicated representation, Kuniholm said.

And, she said, safe Republican and Democratic districts contribute to partisan gridlock, because the only threats to incumbents are primary challengers from zealots in their respective parties.

"In this current system, the values that are rewarded are not moderation, not collaboration, not problem-solving, but extremism," she said. "As you draw those safe districts, you push the elections to the extreme."

A better way?

Some states use independent commissions to draw boundaries, and Fair Districts PA proposes a bipartisan 11-member commission of non-politicians to do the job, roughly modeled on the system in place in California.

It's a little complicated. It involves citizens applying for the gig (they can't be politicians or lobbyists), and a random selection after party leaders have had some limited right to strike applicants, like a jury pool.
Putting it in place would require a change in the state Constitution, which is a steep legislative hill to climb.

The bill would have to pass two successive sessions of the Legislature, then win voter approval in a referendum.

Could it happen? I spoke to the most powerful Republican in the Legislature, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman. He said the independent panel may be a noble idea, but "the problem is, there is no such thing as an independent person. I mean, everyone has some political bias, whether you're a university professor or Sally Homemaker at home, they all have some political feeling or bias."

Lawmakers, Corman said, are at least accountable to voters. Critics say they're accountable to voters in safely gerrymandered districts.

He acknowledged that partisan motives are involved in the current system, but said there are restraints — the map can ultimately be reviewed by courts.

Judicial review

For 20 years, cases charging partisan gerrymandering have failed in the federal courts — until November, when a panel of federal judges struck down districts drawn by Wisconsin's Legislature.

In that case, plaintiffs presented a mathematical formula for measuring gerrymandering.

Attorney Ben Geffen of the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia said when you apply those standards to the Keystone State, "Pennsylvania is either the worst in the country, or one of the three or four worst states in the country."

Geffen told me the Public Interest Law Center has been approached by potential plaintiffs for a case in Pennsylvania.

One potential benefit for activists is that discovery in the case might uncover memos and emails that illuminate the motives of those who crafted the state's current congressional maps.

Some embarrassing material was unearthed in the Wisconsin case.

A big enough tent?

Fair Districts PA is getting big turnouts, in part, because progressives are energized by the election of Donald Trump.

To succeed, the movement will need broader support. The group's redistricting bill does have bipartisan sponsors, and it's holding events throughout the state.

Rick Taylor, a former state representative from Montgomery County who was at the Upper Dublin meeting, said Republican leaders in the Legislature aren't going to welcome change, but they will listen to rank and file lawmakers.

"If we get enough people out saying this is important, pressuring the legislators, they're going to their caucuses, they're going to speak up, and it's going to force the hands of the leaders."

Note: Keystone Crossroads multimedia producer Lindsay Lazarski's Divided Lines presents some compelling images and issues in the gerrymandering debate.

Find this report and others at the site of our partner, NewsWorks. 

WESA will be surveying Pennsylvania candidates for federal and state office for the 2022 general election — tell us which issues are most important to you.