Hundreds gather in Harrisburg for gerrymandering talk
Whoever controls redistricting can control Congress.
That message — written in a 2010 Wall Street editorial by Karl Rove, adviser to former President George W. Bush — set off a multimillion-dollar race for control of state legislatures across the country.
After the Census is taken at the beginning of each decade, all 435 seats in the U.S. House and 100 seats in the U.S. Senate must be reapportioned to ensure each representative has a similar number of constituents, as Carol Kuniholm explained to about 200 people who attended a redistricting meeting in a Harrisburg church Monday night.
In Pennsylvania, state districts also must be redrawn after reapportionment.
State lawmakers have final approval on the new maps, giving the party in power an opportunity to create safe districts for their members and draw opponents off the map — a clear conflict of interest, Kuniholm said.
“We have some assumptions as Americans. We believe that voters should choose their legislators,” she said. “The reality is that, often, legislators choose voters.”
State-of-the-art computer software allows lawmakers from both parties to protect incumbents in districts drawn so they are certain to go their way, Kuniholm said.
Kuniholm runs Fair Districts PA, which hosted the event Monday along with the League of Women Voters of the Harrisburg area.
‘A heavy lift’: Fair Districts PA is a nonprofit volunteer organization looking to pressure state lawmakers to implement a nonpartisan, independent commission on redistricting in Pennsylvania.
Without a constitutional amendment to establish an independent body, Pennsylvania’s five-member Legislative Reappointment Commission will be responsible for redrawing state House and Senate district maps in 2021 and 2022.
The commission’s membership includes the leaders of the majority and minority parties in the state House and Senate and a fifth member chosen by the first four. If the four party leaders cannot agree, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is tasked with choosing the fifth member within 135 days after federal Census data is made available to states, according to Pennsylvania’s constitution.
Once all five positions are filled, the LRC has 90 days to file a preliminary reapportionment plan, followed by a 30-day period for the commission to make corrections to the plan and for members of the public to file exceptions. The commission then has 30 days to file a final plan, which can be challenged by anyone with an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
If the final plan is unconstitutional, the Supreme Court can remand the plans back to the commission. Otherwise, the commission’s plan becomes the law of the land, according to the state constitution.
Though the next redistricting phase is five years away, the clock is already running for state lawmakers to establish an independent commission to redraw district maps after the 2020 Census.
To transfer redistricting authority from the state Legislature to the commission, lawmakers must amend Pennsylvania’s constitution, Kuniholm said.
To amend the constitution before the next district redraw, lawmakers would have to pass the same bill in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 legislative sessions. The bill would then have to pass in a public referendum in 2020 to take effect in time.
“Changing redistricting would not solve everything, but it would open the door to real representation,” Kuniholm said.
Senate Bill 22, backed by Fair Districts PA, was introduced Monday to establish an independent redistricting commission made up of 11 members — four from the majority party, four from the second-largest party and three from a group of third-party and unaffiliated voters.
SB 22 has eight Democratic and two Republican co-sponsors, pointing to some bipartisan agreement on reforming the way districts are drawn in Pennsylvania.
Though politics and politicians will still play a role in redistricting if SB 22 becomes law, Kuniholm said the legislation would require districts to be drawn in a collaborative way, with public input and transparency about the process.
“You can’t take politics out of the process, but you can remove the personal motive, and you can provide strong safeguards against personal motivation,” she said.
Top target: Pennsylvania’s status as one of the last large swing states has made it a top target for outside money and organizations since the last Census, Kuniholm said.
Pennsylvania has some of the worst campaign finance disclosure laws in the country, Kuniholm said, making it even more attractive for those looking to influence the new maps.
In 2010, the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) raised $30 million to help put Republicans in control of state legislatures before district maps were redrawn, Kuniholm said.
The group counts Pennsylvania as one of its success stories,she said, after flipping three seats from Democrat to Republican and changing the make-up of the state House.
REDMAP is now trying to raise $125 million to help elect Republicans to take and keep control of state legislatures, Kuniholm said.
Multiple Democratic efforts, including former President Barack Obama’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee, have been established in the past few years, setting up a potential battle over Pennsylvania’s Legislature worth millions of dollars.
Limited choice: District boundaries often tell their own stories, Kuniholm said, pointing to the “Goofy-kicking-Donald (Duck)” shape of the state’s 7th U.S. Congressional district and the 16th district, which is “one street wide” where the city of Reading is attached to Lancaster County.
Improvements in mapping technology and data-mining capabilities to identify voter trends will continue to distort districts’ shapes and suppress true representation, she said.
“Map programming can carve you up with surgical precision,” Kuniholm said.
The improved technologies allow lawmakers to strike unwritten agreements for “sweetheart gerrymanders,” in which both parties agree to draw safe districts for incumbents, Kuniholm said.
Many of Pennsylvania’s smaller cities have been “cracked,” with lawmakers spreading out the population centers into larger districts, she said, while voters in bigger cities such as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and even York are often “packed,” with populations concentrated in a few districts.
The 95th Pennsylvania House district covers all of York City and West York and parts of Spring Garden and West Manchester townships. Though it resembles an ideal, compact district, it also is a safe district.
Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, easily won the seat in November with more than 60 percent of the vote, having entered the race late and campaigned for less than three months.
Safe districts leave voters from all parties with very little choice at the polls, Kuniholm said, noting that 86 percent of candidates ran unopposed in the 2016 primary elections, while almost 50 percent of candidates ran unopposed in the general elections.
This isolation from competition puts a lid on new voices, ideas and solutions, leading to electoral and policy stagnation, she cautioned.
Rob Altenburg, director of the PennFuture Energy Center, said he has seen many uncontroversial bills with bipartisan support flounder without the backing of committee chairmen.
The safe districts created through redistricting take away voters’ voices, Altenburg said. Democrats in heavily Republican districts have “no hope of swaying anything,” while Democrats in heavily Democratic districts also have little voice, Altenburg said.
The lack of competitive elections has led to less responsive representatives in Harrisburg, Altenburg said, leaving widely supported initiatives such as boosting clean energy and lowering carbon pollution to hang in limbo in the state Legislature.
“It’s a good governance issue,” Altenburg said. “Having representation, having your voices heard — it’s just the way government is supposed to work.”