Redistricting reform is dead. Long live redistricting reform

YORK DISPATCH EDITORIAL BOARD

The effort to reform Pennsylvania's redistricting process came a long way.

In the lead-up to this most recent exercise in politicians-choosing-their-voters, a number of anti-gerrymandering groups like Fair Districts PA organized rallies in Harrisburg and won over a few surprising allies.

Alas, change didn't come.

Efforts to change the state constitution never gained much traction in the GOP-controlled Legislature, whose blessing was needed even to bring the matter to state voters. Neither did a half-measure that would have forced greater transparency within the existing system.

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State House and Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Dave Newman/Dreamstime/TNS)

We're witnessing the results right now in the form of dozens of competing maps and a stalemate between Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative Republicans. All too predictably, our new congressional districts will most likely be drawn by the state Supreme Court, in a repeat of 2018.

That 2018 map was significantly more fair — and certainly less comically fragmented — than what came before.

But this is no way to run a democracy.

Here's the thing: If we want real change, we need to begin now.

The trend in this area — and, believe it or not, activists have been working to reform this system for decades — is for a belated push to pick up momentum a year before the Census. Then, bingo-bango, when those efforts inevitably fail, most people forget all about redistricting again for another decade.

It's unlikely that someone like Democratic state Rep. Steve Samuelson — who's been pitching the idea of an independent commission for years — will just up and quit. But the Samuelsons of the world can't do it alone.

There's so much lobbying going on behind the scenes and few incentives for politicians to actually reform the system. Even a good many Democrats, the party currently out of power in the Legislature, are hesitant to embrace change lest they one day cobble together a majority and regain the power of the gerrymander.

Former state House Majority Leader Dave Reed summed it up well in a recent op-ed: "Members of Congress often will request that state lawmakers keep their current districts the same or make them more favorable for the next election. Lobbyists will advocate for certain districts to be drawn in a manner that benefits their clients. And partisan organizations — from both sides of the political aisle — often publicly argue for or against the proposed maps."

Reed, a Republican, found himself on the wrong side of redistricting in 2018 when the court-revised map effectively blocked his path to Congress. He chose to retire instead. Now, he's in a position to advocate for change — although it's a shame he didn't push for it more strenuously when he had a position of power in the Legislature.

As we barrel toward a new congressional map, reflecting changing demographics (and politics) in the wake of the 2020 Census, we hope the push for reform lives on.

First, the state Supreme Court, with the majority of its justices elected as Democrats, needs to make its own process as transparent as possible and to explain the rationale for whatever map it hands down.

Second, we all need to advocate — loudly and steadfastly — to change this dysfunctional system before the 2030 rolls around and we're once again stuck with a less-than-transparent process that ends up mired in legal battles.