Thursday, May 21, 2020

Op-Ed: Time’s Running Out For Republicans On Redistricting

By Patrick Beaty, Fair Districts PA

This op-ed first appeared on May 19--

Just about a year from now the five Democrats on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court will select an individual to join the Democratic leaders of the state Senate and House in drawing new electoral districts for every member of the General Assembly. 
The announcement of their pick as chair of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission will mark the beginning of the end of a long period of Republican control over the legislative redistricting process.
The last time Democrats held the power to draw new maps was way back in 1991. Running on the maps redrawn that year, Democrats gained a seven-seat majority in the House of Representatives. It didn’t last long. 
Over the next quarter century, House Democrats have held majority control for only four years ending in 2008. GOP control of the state Senate has been uninterrupted since 1994.
Republicans often discount any connection between their 2001 and 2012 district maps and the durability of their ruling majorities in the General Assembly. They prefer to credit the strength of their candidates and their message. 
As for redistricting, they argue the maps simply reflect the reality of where Democrats and Republicans choose to live. 
It’s true, of course, that more Democrats are found in urban and some suburban areas and more Republicans elsewhere. But that certainly doesn’t tell the whole story.
It doesn’t explain why the 2012 House map split 221 towns and municipalities among multiple House districts despite a constitutional prohibition against such divisions “unless absolutely necessary.”
 Or, why Democrats could win over 55 percent of the statewide vote in 2018, while netting only 46 percent of the 203 seats in the House of Representatives.
Let’s all agree. Partisan gerrymandering works as intended. Otherwise, why bother? 
The point is that the shoe is about to be on the other foot. And Democrats could be wearing that shoe for a long time given the likelihood that their party will continue to hold a majority on the Supreme Court in 2031, the next time the court will choose the person with the deciding vote on the redistricting commission.
Yes, time is running out for Republican control of legislative redistricting. It’s also running out on any chance they have to reform the redistricting process before handing it over to their opponents.
 Reform advocates like Fair Districts PA, the Committee of 70, and others have been pushing for a constitutional amendment that would take redistricting out of the hands of legislators and give it to an independent citizens commission as many other states have done. 
House Republican leaders have not allowed that proposal to come to a vote. Senate Republicans passed a version in 2018, but have thus far failed to do so in the current session. 
Time is short, but it can still be done if Republican leaders act soon.
There is also a lot they could do legislatively to open up the redistricting process, impose tighter mapping rules and make legislative districts more responsive to voter preference.
Republicans should seize this opportunity before it’s too late. If not, they will not only disappoint a large majority of voters. 
They’ll also have no one to blame for the results of the 2021 redistricting but themselves and their own leaders.

Patrick Beaty is Legislative Director of Fair Districts PA - Not Red, Not Blue, Just Fair.  
Fair Districts PA is officially a project of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, a nonpartisan political organization which encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy.
Fair Districts PA receives no funding from political action committees (PACs) or political parties, and is endorsed by a wide range of local and statewide organizations.
An October 2019 Franklin & Marshall Poll of registered voters shows overwhelming support for an independent citizens commission to redraw legislative voting districts-- 67 percent favored an independent commission, including 63 percent of Republicans and 66 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of Independents--
-- 72 percent believe the current system of drawing legislative districts allows party leaders to put party interests above voter interests;
-- 70 percent believe the current system creates polarization and gridlock;
-- 65 percent believe the current system lets elected officials choose their voters instead of voters choosing them;
-- 62 percent believe the current system gives voters fewer choices on Election Day;
-- 61 percent believe the current system of drawing legislative districts prevents voters from holding their representatives accountable; and
-- 59 percent of respondents said they were more likely or very likely to support legislators who vote for an independent citizens redistricting commission.
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