100 protesters call for gerrymandering fixes

Carol Kuniholm, chairwoman for Fair Districts PA, speaks during a Tuesday afternoon rally at the state Capitol. Her group has backed a plan to reform the state's process for drawing Congressional and legislative district boundaries.

HARRISBURG — About 100 advocates gathered on the steps of the Capitol rotunda Tuesday, calling for state lawmakers to pass fixes to eliminate partisan gerrymandering before the Congressional and legislative political boundaries are redrawn following the 2020 Census.

The event, organized by Fair Districts PA, the state’s leading grassroots advocacy group lobbying, focused on getting the state to change the way political boundaries are drawn.

Carol Kuniholm, Fair Districts PA chairwoman, said those who came to the Capitol on Tuesday “are a small fraction of our army of volunteers” lobbying to get redistricting reforms passed.

She said “voters are tired of dysfunction” at the Capitol and are frustrated by the “petty despots who ignore voters because their districts are safe.”

State Rep. Tom Murt, R-Montgomery County, is one of the sponsors of legislation backed by Fair Districts PA.

"Elected officials should not be picking their constituents, it should be the other way around,” Murt said.

The effort is complicated by the fact that there are now two different processes for drawing the Congressional and state legislative maps.

Changing the process for drawing Congressional maps can be accomplished through a normal piece of legislation.

Changing the process for drawing the political boundaries in state legislative races would require a Constitutional amendment.

Amending the Constitution requires that the General Assembly pass the same exact measure in two consecutive legislation sessions. Then voters decide whether the Constitution should be changed in a statewide ballot referendum.

Fair Districts, PA. has backed a two-for-one plan that calls for passing legislation to create an independent commission to redraw the Congressional maps, while moving to amend the Constitution to use the same process to redraw the state legislative boundaries.

Kuniholm said voters could decide whether to amend the Constitution in May 2021 – if the amendment proposal passes in the General Assembly in this legislative session and early in 2021.

To try to accomplish that, Murt and state Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton County, introduced a package of two bills – one to change the process for changing Congressional districts and the other to use the same commission to redraw the state political boundaries once the Constitution has been amended to allow it.

Samuelson introduced legislation calling for an independent redistricting commission in May 2017 and the measure never got out of the state government committee in the 2017-18 legislative session.

In a sign of progress, the new state government committee chairman Garth Everett, R-Lycoming County, said Tuesday afternoon that he plans to hold at least one hearing on the redistricting reform issue.

Everett said there’s broad support for the concept of doing something to improve the way the political boundaries are drawn.

But in a sign of how controversial the issue remains, Everett also threw cold water on the suggestion that the two-for-one strategy embraced by Fair Districts PA will get traction in time to impact the drawing of legislative districts after the next Census.

“I don’t see how” the state will be able to amend the Constitution in time, Everett said.

Everett said that in light of the state Supreme Court's move to redraw the state's congressional boundaries after declaring the old maps were illegally gerrymandered, there may be more support among lawmakers for tackling that process, if there's no support for doing both.

Everett said other options, besides what’s been proposed in these reform bills, could include changes to make the redistricting process more transparent or define the parameters that should be used when redrawing the boundaries.

“We’ll do something,” he said. “We just don’t know what.”

Everett’s not the only key lawmaker who’s not fully embracing the Fair Districts PA-backed reform plan.

The Senate state government committee last week passed a separate plan that would also create a commission to redraw the political boundaries. The commission in the legislation sponsored by Murt and Samuelson would be comprised of randomly-selected voters — four Republicans, four Democrats and three independent or third-party members.

The Senate plan would create a commission of voters appointed by legislative leaders and the governor.

While there is certainly no consensus on how the General Assembly might reform the redistricting process, Samuelson said he’s encouraged that there is interest in both chambers of the Legislature to tackle the issue.

“At least we’re talking,” he said.

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