State reps throw support behind redistricting reform

Jason Addy

More than 150 supporters of legislative redistricting reform took to the steps of the Pennsylvania State Capitol on Tuesday to mark a milestone many thought would never come.

Although it aims to take redistricting authority from state lawmakers by creating an independent citizens commission, House Bill 722 now has more support from legislators than almost any other bill in recent years, the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton, said at the rally.

State Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe, speaks at an "end gerrymandering in PA" rally on the Pennsylvania State Capitol steps. Tuesday, May 9, 2017. Jason Addy photo.

On Monday, HB722 was referred to the Pennsylvania House of Representative’s state government committee with 88 of the 203 representatives marked as co-sponsors. Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, is one of 67 Democrats and 21 Republicans who added their names to the bill.

After the hourlong rally at the Capitol, Fair Districts PA Chairwoman Carol Kuniholm said now is the “perfect moment” to try to take the process of redrawing districts out of legislators’ hands.

Kuniholm said this is a “sweet spot in political history” for redistricting reform, with the public taking notice of flaws in the electoral process after a contentious 2016 election cycle.

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Republicans in the state House also are beginning to take notice that Democrats will likely control the next redistricting process after the 2020 census, providing an “important piece of pressure” on some legislators who might be unwilling to cede redistricting authority, Kuniholm said.

Supporters of legislative redistricting reform gather for a rally at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. Tuesday, May 9, 2017. Jason Addy photo.

Kuniholm, along with organizers from Fair Districts PA, the League of Women Voters and other groups, has held more than 100 public meetings in churches, schools and town halls across the state since January to educate voters about how districts are created and the concept of gerrymandering.

Hundreds gather in Harrisburg for gerrymandering talk

Gerrymandering occurs when one political party manipulates the boundaries of legislative districts in an attempt to ensure future electoral successes. Legislative district maps are redrawn every 10 years following the U.S. Census.

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.

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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. In the last 2 1/2 months, two Democrats and one Republican have added their names to the bill.

Kuniholm has 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 after a public meeting in Harrisburg in March. 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.