Op/ed: Committee guts anti-gerrymandering bill

Gerrymandering has perverted our democracy in Pennsylvania for too long. Legislators draw their own voting districts. Maps are drawn so that the politicians pick their voters, instead of voters picking their politicians.

These gerrymandered maps determine who votes for our state legislators, and our U.S. Congress. If the maps pre-determine the winners of our elections, there is no accountability in government.

Last week, the Pennsylvania House committee in charge of reform legislation performed a cowardly act. Instead of debating gerrymandering reform, they gutted it.

Here’s the explanation. Senate Bill 22 and House Bill 722 are the pieces of legislation most strongly supported by a majority of legislators in both houses. Until last week, HB722 specified an independently appointed citizens’ commission to draw the lines. (Several other states have chosen this method in the past few years.)

In the House, HB722 was co-sponsored by 103 of the 203 Representatives in the House, an unusually strong show of support by legislators for a bill that hasn’t even been released from committee.

However, last week, the committee in charge of HB722 (the House State Government Committee) erased the independent citizens’ commission plan from the bill, and instead inserted a plan that will make gerrymandering in Pennsylvania even worse!

The “new” bill would perpetuate the current system of having legislators directly drawing their own districts’ lines. In addition, it actually removes the oversight currently held by the governor and reduces oversight by the state Supreme Court.

Also, it almost completely eliminates any ability of the public to affect the result.

There is barely a four-week public comment period. There is no requirement for the commission to respond to any public comments. During that period, at any time the legislators’ commission can submit “changes” to the plan. So theoretically, the commission could submit a decoy plan that looks fair but then, on the last day, submit a different, completely gerrymandered map that would immediately have the force of law.

If such a gerrymandered, unaccountable map becomes law, the only remedy is a lawsuit. But the extremely gerrymandered map put in place in 2011 was only struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2018. So, the political party that drew those maps could “enjoy their candy” for 7 years, with no consequences or punishment when their unfair map was taken away. Of course, why wouldn’t they want to do it again?

Cynically, the committee’s amendment even removes the vague language calling for the map-drawing process to be open, transparent and fair. There is not even a pretense of integrity – even that word was removed.

The legislators in the House State Government Committee have converted HB722 into a partisan Trojan Horse, completely subverting the purpose of an anti-gerrymandering bill in the first place. The changes were made in a hastily called, 20-minute session, with no discussion allowed by either committee members or members of the public. The 103 representatives who had already cosponsored the bill were also not informed that their bill was being gutted.

The claim from some legislators is that a citizens commission would not be accountable. But with rule-making like this, clearly the legislators are contorting themselves in any way possible, precisely to avoid accountability. These rules would be a part of the Pennsylvania Constitution, and very difficult to change afterward.

What can we do in Chadds Ford? Our own state Representative, Steve Barrar, sits on that House State Government Committee. Committee records document his vote supporting this Trojan Horse amendment, although he told a constituent afterward that he wasn’t present and had given his proxy to the chairman, Daryl Metcalfe.

If more evidence is needed of the partisan nature of this legislative move, this weekend we can read on Mr. Metcalfe’s Facebook page that as chairman, “I block all substantive Democrat legislation sent to my committee and advance good Republican legislation!”

Mr. Barrar needs to understand the danger of partisan gerrymandering to our democracy. Only an independently appointed Citizens’ Commission to draw voting lines will ensure that the will of voting citizens is heard. Let’s encourage Mr. Barrar to actively support it.

David Epstein
Chadds Ford Township
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