EDITORIAL: Redistricting reform needed — and now
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to weigh in on a Wisconsin redistricting case has returned national attention to the issue of political gerrymandering.
And a League of Women Voters legal challenge to Pennsylvania’s congressional districts is again focusing attention on the issue here at home.
Good on both counts. There needs to be far more public discussion and scrutiny of how political maps are drawn. Even better, there needs to be public pressure for reform — in the Keystone State and elsewhere.
The Supreme Court case, scheduled for the 2017-18 term, has the potential to vastly alter political mapmaking nationwide, not just in states where minority voters have persistently faced voting hurdles.
Other recent high court decisions — such as the justices’ rejection earlier this year of North Carolina’s Republican-designed districts — hinged on contentions of racial bias. (North Carolina, remember, was one of several states that raced to redraw its political map after the Supreme Court’s lamentable 2013 5-4 decision to reverse key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.)
What makes the Wisconsin case different — and potentially more far-reaching — is that it centers on arguments of gerrymandering based on partisan political considerations.
Of course, any effort to minimize American citizens’ political franchise is reprehensible. Indeed, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, in its complaint, correctly called political gerrymandering “one of the greatest threats to American democracy today.”
Unfortunately, such efforts have deep roots in American politics. That’s because, for far too long and in far too many states, drawing political maps has been left to office holders themselves. And we know whose interests they’re looking out for.
Pennsylvania is one such state. Following the 2010 census, majority Republicans revised the boundary lines on political maps. And they’ve been padding their elective margins ever since.
The League of Women Voters argues that’s no coincidence. Its lawsuit alleges the state GOP followed a national Republican playbook that called for using state-of-the-art mapmaking technologies to design districts that would “entrench its own representatives in power."
There’s no doubt Pennsylvania’s districts are … creative. The state’s infamous 7th Congressional District, for example, snakes through five different counties and is one of the 10 least compact districts in the nation. And recall, submissions in a “Name That District” contest run by the Washington Post included “Popeye Holding Hands with Olive Oyl” and, the winner, “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck.”
The names are funny; the political gamesmanship is not.
It’s one reason why, in a state where Democrats hold a 4-3 majority in voter registration, Republicans hold a 13-5 majority in congressional districts represented.
Make no mistake. The problem would be just as dire were Democrats in charge. And it has been, over the decades, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. No, this is about fair representation.
And the only way to ensure fair representation, as the political pendulum swings left and right, is for a commission of non-elected — ideally, nonpartisan — members to design political maps.
A pair of bills in Pennsylvania’s House and Senate — HB 722 and SB 22 respectively — would get the ball rolling, placing the question of forming such a committee in front of voters in the form of a constitutional amendment.
If the enthusiasm at an “End Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania” rally last month at the state Capitol is any indication, voters would welcome the opportunity to weigh in.
But first, lawmakers must give them that opportunity. The two bills have yet to come before their respective houses for full votes, and the clock is ticking — and not just on the legislative session.
Constitutional amendments in Pennsylvania must be approved by two successive legislatures before proceeding to the ballot. If a commission is to have a chance of materializing before the 2021 redistricting (following the 2020 census), lawmakers must act now. If they’re serious about wanting reform, that is.
It shouldn’t take the threat of a League of Women Voters lawsuit or precedent-setting Supreme Court action to compel state lawmakers to do right by their constituents.
It should simply take elected officials responding to public demand for fair representation.
So, public, demand it.