Fighting gerrymandering in Pennsylvania

A depiction of how districts may be unfairly drawn.

A group fighting gerrymandering in Pennsylvania has found some champions in Harrisburg. The group is Fair Districts PA, and one of the champions is state Rep. Eric Roe, R-158, of East Marlborough.

Roe addressed a Fair Districts PA meeting at Unionville High School Thursday night. He spoke about HB 722, a bill he introduced with state Rep. Steve Samuelson, a Democrat from Northampton County whose district includes Bethlehem.

"The time to end gerrymandering is now," Roe told the audience.

The bill would be an amendment to the state constitution calling for a new, 11-member nonpartisan commission to redraw district lines instead of the current five-member commission.

An artist's embellishment of a district drawn by former Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry. People thought it looked like a salamander, which led to the term "gerrymandering."

That current commission is made up of the majority and minority leaders of both houses of the General Assembly, plus a fifth person appointed by the state Supreme Court. According to Carol Kuniholm, chairman of Fair Districts PA, the Republicans have held sway on the state Supreme Court for years, but now the Democrats have a majority there, and they now would decide on a fifth member.

Under HB 722, the commission would have four members from the state's largest party, four from the second largest party and three members who are not affiliated with either of those two parties.

Roe said having those other three members on the commission would give some voice to independents and those registered as members of third parties, Greens, Libertarians and others.

The measure also puts restrictions on partisan political and lobbying activities for a time after a member is off the commission.

The full 15-page text of HB 722 may be found here.

The house co-sponsorship memoranda that Roe and Samuelson issued says: "Under our legislation, the Independent Redistricting Commission tasked to draw boundary lines will not be beholden to incumbent politicians or political parties. Our proposal ensures that State Legislative and Congressional districts are drawn in a fair and impartial manner."

Districts are redrawn every 10 years following the U.S. Census. The current commission comprises party loyalists who redraw districts to favor the political party in power.

The term gerrymandering gets its name from Elbridge Gerry, the 1812 governor of Massachusetts who redrew a district in that state to favor his political party. The district, some said, looked like a salamander and the name gerrymandering was coined.

HB 722 was developed in conjunction with Fair Districts PA, a statewide coalition that includes the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, Common Cause Pennsylvania, the Committee of Seventy, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches and more than 20 other organizations.

The evolution of the Pennsylvania 7th Congressional District's shape since 1952 because of gerrymandered districts. Carol Kuniholm of Fair Didstricts PA said the 2013 shape looks like "Goofy kicking Donald."

The bill now has 90 co-sponsors, including Carolyn Comitta, D-156. State Rep. Steve Barrar, R-160, has not signed on as a co-sponsor. He said he needs to study that bill and several others calling for changes to the redistricting procedure.

He thinks one of the things needed is an extended comment and objection period after new district lines are proposed. Barrar said the time frame now is only 10 to 15 days, but people should have at least 30 days to comment and file objections.

There's a companion bill, SB 22, in the state Senate, which calls for the same 11-member commission. State Sen. Lisa Bascule, from Northampton County, is the prime sponsor of SB 22. One of the 13 co-sponsors is Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-19, of West Chester. State Sen. Tom Killion, R-9, was not available for immediate comment.

Kuniholm, who is also a member of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, said gerrymandering hurts democracy and accountability.

"We're not choosing legislators," she said before the meeting, "legislators are choosing us."

She said gerrymandering in inherently unfair and used both the 16th and 7th Congressional districts as examples.

The 16th is comprised mostly of Southern Chester County horse country and Lancaster County farms. But the city of Reading, a tiny piece of Berks County, is added to the 16th.

Kuniholm said Reading is one of the poorest communities in the country and residents have virtually nothing in common with the rest of the district. As such, voters in Reading lose any influence they might have in the legislative process.

"Voters lose their voice," she said.

She also showed maps of the 7th district revealing how gerrymandering changed the district's geographic shape from 1952 through the present. She referred to the current shape as "Goofy kicking Donald," because of its odd configuration.

Gerrymandering is "the keystone of cronyism and control," Kuniholm said.

For more information on Fair Districts PA, go to fairdistrictspa.com

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About Rich Schwartzman

Rich Schwartzman has been reporting on events in the greater Chadds Ford area since September 2001 when he became the founding editor of The Chadds Ford Post. In April 2009 he became managing editor of ChaddsFordLive. He is also an award-winning photographer.

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