EDITORIAL: Pa.'s redistricting debacle shows need for independent commission

The York Dispatch

Editor's note: This editorial was originally published May 9, 2013.

Pennsylvania finally has new legislative maps.

The process took two years and was marked by comically blatant gerrymandering and an almost unheard of court defeat that threw an election into disarray.

But, mercifully, it's done.

The state Supreme Court Wednesday approved the Legislative Reapportionment Commission's second attempt at redistricting Pennsylvania's 203 House districts and 50 Senate districts — maps that will be used starting next year.

Last year, the court threw out the Republican-controlled commission's first version, calling it "contrary to law."

Redistricting is done every 10 years, based on the results of the latest U.S. Census. The state constitution says each legislative district "shall be composed of compact and contiguous territory as nearly equal in population as practicable. ... Unless absolutely necessary no county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward shall be divided in forming either a senatorial or representative district."

It was the first time in 40 years the court had struck down proposed legislative maps, but the GOP's obvious incumbent-protection scheme couldn't be ignored.

The January 2012 ruling caused headaches for candidates who had already started campaigning under the proposed new maps, and some were no longer even in the districts they intended to represent when the decision was finally made to use the existing maps for that year's election.

Republicans criticized the use of the 2001 maps, saying population shifts meant voters were no longer fairly represented in 2012, a presidential election.

Yes, but it was better than using maps that were obviously drawn to strengthen GOP-held districts and weaken Democratic ones. That's politicians choosing their voters, and it makes a mockery of the election process.

This power grab is not unique to Republicans or to Pennsylvania. It's done whenever one party holds firm control of a state's Legislature.

And it's a disservice to voters everywhere.

It leads to non-competitive districts, where elections are decided in primaries, and where voters' choices are limited to varying extremes of one particular political philosophy. Representatives are less beholden to their constituents in these safe districts than to their party leaders.

Now that this debacle is over, it's time for Pennsylvania residents to take back the power and demand an independent redistricting commission such as those in California and Arizona.

In those states, no elected official and no one who recently held public office can serve on the redistricting commission. No party officials have a say, either.

It makes perfect sense.

Clearly, politicians — of any stripe — can't be trusted to put the interests of the people over their own.