EDITORIAL: Fight gerrymandering in court if necessary

Pennsylvanians can reclaim their power by supporting a bill to establish an independent redistricting commission.

The York Dispatch
  • Pennsylvanians can reclaim their power by supporting a bill to establish an independent commission.
  • If that doesn't work, a court fight might be necessary.

Are Pennsylvania voters starting to wake up?

Cumberland County Commissioner Jim Hertzler (center) addresses a crowd of about 200 people at a gerrymandering discussion hosted in Harrisburg by Fair Districts PA. Monday, Feb. 27 (Photo: Jason Addy)

Carol Kuniholm thinks so — and we hope she’s right.

The chairwoman of Fair Districts PA said she has been “stunned” by the turnout at meetings she has organized across Pennsylvania during the past few months.

The gatherings are intended to educate people about gerrymandering — when the party in power redraws legislative maps to ensure victory in a disproportionate number of districts — and enlist their help in changing the system.

In a nutshell, gerrymandering lets majority party leaders put a foot on the scale — drawing maps around friendly voters and corralling opposition voters into fewer, nonthreatening districts.

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It leads to noncompetitive districts, where elections are decided in primaries and where voters' choices are limited to varying extremes of one particular political philosophy. Representatives are less beholden to their constituents in these safe districts than to their party leaders.

Redistricting is done every 10 years, based on the results of the latest U.S. Census.

The state constitution says each legislative district "shall be composed of compact and contiguous territory as nearly equal in population as practicable. ... Unless absolutely necessary no county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward shall be divided in forming either a senatorial or representative district."

After the 2010 Census, Pennsylvania’s redistricting process took two years and was marked by blatant gerrymandering. For the first time in 40 years, the state Supreme Court struck down a proposed legislative map, saying it was "contrary to law."

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Since then, The York Dispatch has been calling for an independent redistricting commission that would remove politics from the process and return power to the people.

We think that’s even more important after the November election.

“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.’”

Pennsylvanians can reclaim their power by supporting a bill, introduced in the Senate at the end of February, to establish an independent redistricting commission.

To transfer redistricting authority to a new citizens’ commission, state lawmakers must pass an identical bill 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.

In other words, that process has to start now if citizens are to have a greater say in the redistricting after the next Census.

Unfortunately — but not surprisingly — there doesn’t seem to be any sense of urgency among local lawmakers to change the status quo. That would mean our representatives might have to vote against their own interests for the good of our democracy.

Pennsylvania residents do have another option.

A panel of federal judges ruled 2-1 in favor of a constitutional challenge to Wisconsin’s district maps. The challenge was based on a new mathematical standard to measure the extent of gerrymandering, dubbed the “efficiency gap model.”

It’s a model proponents say could be used to fight unfair redistricting in Pennsylvania.

We suggest our readers contact their representatives and urge them to support an independent redistricting commission — and be ready to go to court if legislators ignore them.