Redistricting reform: Can public fervor create political will?
People are finally waking up.
That’s Carol Kuniholm’s explanation for the surprisingly high turnouts she has seen while hosting public meetings across Pennsylvania about the “process and products” of gerrymandering — when the party in power redraws legislative maps to ensure victory in a disproportionate number of districts.
Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA, has spent the past few months meeting with concerned voters in churches and schools around the state to share her organization’s vision for a more representative democracy.
Having set out on her tour expecting to speak to small groups of curious residents, Kuniholm said she was “stunned” by the level of interest and attention her presentations have received and the number of people who have volunteered to help spread the message.
Kuniholm said she believes the discussion of voter fraud after the general election in November played a role in prompting fact-finding missions for many people who felt their voices weren’t being heard.
“The narrative of ‘The elections are rigged’ made people say, ‘Are they rigged?’” Kuniholm said. “In the middle of that narrative (Fair Districts PA said) ‘They are rigged, but not in the way you think.’”
Small window of opportunity: Fair Districts PA is a nonprofit volunteer organization looking to pressure state lawmakers to end partisan gerrymandering by implementing a nonpartisan, independent redistricting commission in Pennsylvania.
To transfer redistricting authority from the state Legislature to an independent commission, state lawmakers must pass an identical bill outlining the creation and rules of the commission in two consecutive legislative sessions — 2017-18 and 2018-19. The potential amendment must then pass in a public referendum in 2020 to take effect in time for the next district redraw.
A bill establishing an independent commission was introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate at the end of February, with eight Democratic and two Republican co-sponsors.
Changing the process is “complicated” and “time-consuming” with a lot of moving pieces, Kuniholm said, but the crowds at her meetings have shown an appetite for change and a willingness to stay engaged.
“Once people really understand what’s going on, they want to see it change,” Kuniholm said.
Kuniholm said Fair Districts PA and other organizations also are pushing for lawmakers to introduce bills that would create recognizable standards for measuring gerrymandering to accompany the “compact and contiguous” requirement for congressional districts.
U.S. congressional districts are drawn up by the state Legislature and passed using the same process as a normal piece of legislation, so the standards would bind lawmakers to work within certain constraints, Kuniholm said. An independent redistricting commission would replace the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, which convenes every 10 years to draw the maps for state House and Senate districts.
‘Legitimate’ questions: First-year Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-Franklin Township, said she is not surprised by the public’s newfound interest in redistricting.
While knocking on doors during her campaign for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Keefer said voters asked her about who their representatives are and how they ended up in those districts.
Keefer pointed out U.S. Congressman Lou Barletta’s district, which stretches from north of Scranton to Cumberland County, saying it was “legitimate” for people on both sides to be asking about the redistricting process in Pennsylvania.
“As much as you have Republican zealots and Democratic zealots, I would say the large majority of people want good government,” Keefer said.
With groups like Fair Districts PA trying to amend the state’s constitution to implement an independent citizens’ commission, Keefer said it makes sense that they have already starting working.
“Now’s probably the time if you want to change (the process),” Keefer said.
However, she cautioned about the idea of “unelected bureaucrats making decisions for all of us,” saying she has encountered plenty of “independent” boards, agencies and other entities that were politicized.
Keefer said she has received a handful of emails from constituents voicing concerns about the process, though none of her colleagues have approached her about redistricting.
Rep. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, said there have been discussions on redistricting legislation in previous sessions, but there have been no “concrete” discussions yet this year.
State lawmakers have been focused on the budget the first months of the year, Saylor said, but redistricting could be brought up after a budget is passed.
“I think that there is some interest in possibly moving (a redistricting bill), but I don’t know that there is a whole lot,” Saylor said. “I think there’s room for movement, and at least discussion, to look exactly where we go with reapportionment.”
Several local lawmakers reached Tuesday said they did not have enough knowledge to speak about their positions on Senate Bill 22 and redistricting.
Human element: Even if the commission is not created by the next district redraw in 2021, new laws could establish standards to protect against partisan influence on district maps, Kuniholm said.
There is no way to remove the human element from the redistricting process, Kuniholm said, but these safeguards, such as limiting the number of districts crossing rivers and mountains and the number of municipalities split by legislative districts, would help ensure that whoever is drawing the maps for the next decade cannot give either party an undue electoral advantage.
These safeguards also would prevent targeted partisan gerrymandering, such as in the case of Cliff Jones, a story Cumberland County Commissioner Jim Hertzler shared with several hundred people at a Fair Districts PA event last month in Harrisburg.
In November 1991, Jones, a former chairman of the state Republican Party and former president of the state Chamber of Business and Industry, announced he was seeking the 31st District's seat in the Pennsylvania Senate. Several hours after his campaign announcement, Jones no longer lived in the 31st District, but not because he moved.
On the same day as Jones' announcement, the Legislative Reapportionment Commission released its final redistricting plan, which included a small change — the removal of a few properties, including Jones', from the 31st Senate District, leaving him on the outside looking in and ineligible to run for the seat.
Though Jones' story is particularly egregious, the party leadership still uses the LRC to implement their "incumbent protection plans" and keep rank-and-file legislators in line, Kuniholm said.
"The leadership uses this as a tool so that legislators that don't vote as they're told will be primaried out. They'll be x-ed off the map," Kuniholm said.