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EDITORIAL: Let an independent have crack at redistricting

York Dispatch

The state Supreme Court has already hired an independent redistricting expert to create a new congressional map — just in case the GOP-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf can’t agree on a replacement for the one struck down last month as unconstitutionally partisan.

That’s good, because it looks like the court will need to step in.

With the May 15 primary fast approaching, the two ranking Republicans unveiled their plan Friday, just days before Wolf is supposed to tell the high court if he’s on board with it.

Proposed congressional map.

We hope the governor doesn’t settle for House Speaker Mike Turzai’s and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati’s alternative, which is being criticized as just as partisan as the existing one.

More:GOP leaders unveil revamped Pennsylvania congressional map

More:Supreme Court rejects bid to halt Pennsylvania redistricting lawsuit

More:Pa. gerrymandering case sows doubt in big year for House races

At a glance, the proposed map looks like an improvement — but that bar was set pretty low, considering the current one.

Gone are many of the meandering, convoluted borders and municipal splits. The GOP plan would divide 32 counties and municipalities, 62 fewer than the current map, and would keep nearly 70 percent of state residents in their existing districts, the Associated Press reports.

Pennsylvania's current congressional map.

The state’s Democratic-controlled high court ordered the Legislature to draw new districts that are compact and contiguous and only split counties, cities, towns, boroughs, townships or wards when needed to ensure population equality — as the state Constitution directs.

The order was in response to a Jan. 22 ruling in favor of a group of voters who argued the districts in the congressional map used since 2012 were unconstitutionally gerrymandered to benefit Republicans.

Those plaintiffs said last weekend the GOP's proposed replacement is a “naked partisan gerrymander” that divides populous southeastern counties for partisan gain, the Associated Press.

At this point in Pennsylvania’s process, with the primary election right around the corner, there’s little time for Wolf and the GOP leaders to hash out a fairer alternative. The tight time frame already has cut rank-and-file lawmakers out of a process they would normally have a role in.

FILE - In this Oct. 7, 2015, file photo, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, center, accompanied by state House Minority Leader Rep. Frank Dermody, right, D-Allegheny, and state Rep. Joe Markosek, left, D-Allegheny, discuss state budget negotiations at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. Republican leaders of the Pennsylvania Legislature said Friday, Feb. 9, 2018, that they've agreed to a proposed new map of congressional districts to replace one thrown out last month, but Wolf issued a statement earlier that day raising doubts about whether the Republican leaders' proposed map would suffice. Dermody, the House Democratic leader, said his members had no role in producing the plan. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

The best option now is to see what a truly independent map-maker can devise from scratch, and the state Supreme Court has redistricting expert Nathaniel Persily of Stanford University waiting in the wings to do just that.

Let's see what we get when partisan lawmakers are taken out of the process completely, and voters are finally allowed to choose their representatives rather than elected officials choosing their voters.

Let's see if it leads to competitive districts, where elections aren't decided in primaries and where voters' choices aren't limited to varying extremes of one particular political philosophy.

More:EDITORIAL: Pa.'s redistricting debacle shows need for independent commission

Perhaps this finally will lead to a truly independent redistricting process directed by a citizens' commission, similar to those adopted in states like California and Arizona.

That change would require a constitutional amendment, meaning lawmakers would have to pass an identical bill in two consecutive legislative sessions. But if they started now, they could have a new commission in place before the next redistricting occurs after the 2020 Census.

Legislators should give it some serious thought, considering this is the second time in six years the state Supreme Court has struck down one of their map-making attempts.