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Independent commission?

Redistricting: Is there a better way?


There’s not a lot of happy people these days under the Capitol dome.

Republican majority legislators are miffed that the state Supreme Court ordered them to redraw the Congressional district boundaries after finding the maps unconstitutional.

After being denied a requested delay from the U.S. Supreme Court, the Republican leadership sat down to redo the maps, complaining all along the way about the short timetable and lack of a detailed state court ruling giving them guidance.

But the Republicans met their deadline, albeit on a Friday night when typically no good political outcome can be expected.

Now the Democrats are miffed. There’s not much difference and the political bias remains in the reconfigured districts, they said. Consequently, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, rejected the new maps.

The matter now turns to the Democrat-controlled state Supreme Court that received seven proposed Congressional maps to evaluate. Who can predict what happens after that, but as of this writing the Republicans have vowed to seek redress in federal court over what they view as the court’s overreach.

So there it is - a vicious cycle of finger-pointing, name calling and moral huffing and puffing by the esteemed politicians.

Voters, of course, are left in the lurch.

There must be a better way. And actually, there is.

Legislation is sitting in both the state House and Senate that would drastically change the redistricting process after the 2020 Census. The legislation, Senate Bill 22 and House Bill 722, would establish an 11-person independent commission to draw up new districts. Based on current statewide registration figures, the commission would comprise four Democrats, four Republicans and three independents. None can be elected officials. Public hearings would be required before the maps are drawn and after they are completed. At least seven members must approve the maps, with one person from each subgroup being on board.

This legislation is supported by Fair Districts PA (www.fairdistrictspa.com), a non-partisan organization consisting of volunteers that believe the current process needs to be changed. House Bill 722, as of this writing, has 107 co-sponsors, a majority of that governing body. Nonetheless, the legislation sits in the House State Government Committee that is chaired by Daryl Metcalfe.

Senate Bill 22 is faring no better, even though the Senate State Government Committee is chaired by Mike Folmer who has expressed a keen interest in the issue. Folmer, whose district includes Lebanon County and parts of Dauphin and York counties, has said he would conduct hearings once the ongoing litigation is complete.

That is simply a delaying tactic. The litigation involves the current redistricting process, while the proposed legislation involves a new way to do the maps in the future. Sen. Folmer has also recently written columns expressing concerns about some aspects in the proposed legislation, saying it is not real reform. But it’s hard to address those concerns when no hearings are held and none appear on the horizon.

There is a timetable for the legislation. Formation of an independent commission requires a Constitutional Amendment that must be approved by the voters. The exact same legislation has to be approved in the current session of the state General Assembly, as well as the next one in 2019-20, to make it to the ballot by 2020. By most estimates, action must be taken by early July for a referendum vote to become a possibility. Otherwise, voters will have to wait until the 2030 Census before there is any change in the redistricting process.

If nothing changes, voters will be kept in the dark as Republican and Democratic legislators squabble over their own personal interests when drawing up new districts in 2021. If the legislators do their jobs as they normally do, many of them will have no opposition candidates, or only nominal competition, throughout the decade. Independents will continue to be part of the forgotten, disenfranchised masses in Pennsylvania as the primary election, in some instances, becomes the only contest.

This madness needs to end. Once the legislators stop their bickering about the state court and the new maps, maybe they will realize there is a better way.

In the meantime, voters can do their part by encouraging their legislators to quit the in-fighting and get moving on SB 22 and HB 722.

Dochat is a volunteer with Fair Districts PA in Dauphin County.