EDITORIAL: No excuses on Pa. redistricting

York Dispatch

If anything, a lawsuit that asks the state Commonwealth Court to order the creation of new congressional district maps should inject urgency into state lawmakers’ efforts at redistricting reform.

Instead, it has had just the opposite effect. And it’s hard not to wonder whether top officials like state Sen. Mike Folmer are using the suit as a convenient excuse to put the brakes on a process that always gets legislative lip service but little else.

Folmer is citing a months-old suit by the League of Women Voters for his failure to schedule hearings on redistricting reform in front of the state Senate’s State Government Committee, which he chairs.

The hearings, frankly, are already long overdue. They would address Senate Bill 22, which calls for an independent redistricting commission to be established through an amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The change is intended to address the heavy-handed partisanship that saw an Associated Press analysis rank Pennsylvania’s 2011 redistricting the second-most partisan in the country, trailing only Texas (whose electoral maps continue to be tied up in the courts).

An independent commission would take the responsibility of redistricting — the process of creating new electoral districts to reflect changing populations — out of the hands of lawmakers, who routinely exploit the practice to pad their majorities.

It’s one of the few truly bipartisan operations left in politics. After the once-a-decade U.S. Census, majority parties — whether Democratic or Republican — set to work crafting political maps that spread out their own voters over as many districts as possible, while herding the minority party’s backers into as few districts as they can get away with.

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That’s how a state like Pennsylvania, with 900,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans (a 4-3 enrollment difference), winds up with Republicans representing 13 of its 18 congressional districts.

That’s also why the League of Women Voters is seeking an independent redistricting panel. Such a body could bring not only more equitable districts to Pennsylvania but a little transparency to the process. According to The Associated Press, Pennsylvania’s 2011 map was drawn “behind closed doors, and mapmakers released no records to explain their strategy.”

All of which is to say there’s little to defend in the current congressional maps, other than Republicans’ ill-gotten majority.

But that hasn’t stopped York Republican Folmer from dragging his feet. As the Dispatch’s Jason Addy reported, “Because the lawsuit requests all records relating to how those maps were drawn in 2011, legislators have been advised by legal counsel to hold off on any public hearings regarding the 2011 maps, (Folmer chief of staff Fred) Sembach said.”

How convenient.

The postponement is troubling because, in this case, reform delayed could very well be reform denied.

Before being put on the ballot, prospective amendments to the state Constitution must be approved by lawmakers in two successive legislative sessions. That requires legislative action post haste, lest the commission fail to be established before the 2020 Census starts the redistricting process anew.

Sembach told the Dispatch that Folmer is committed to reform, and his willingness to invite elections experts before the State Government Committee to determine how Pennsylvania’s electoral system performed in 2016 amid Russian meddling efforts reflects such a stance.

But delaying movement on redistricting reform is a step backward. Regardless of any court decision, the state’s electoral mapmaking should be put in the hands of a disinterested panel.

State lawmakers need to take the necessary steps to get the redistricting amendment before voters in time to take effect following the 2020 Census. That means acting now.