The Incline in Harrisburg

What’s behind the fight over Pennsylvania redistricting reform

Advocates want big-picture changes to the process. But time is running out before the next census.

The state capitol building in Harrisburg

The state capitol building in Harrisburg

Ken Marshall / Flickr
Sarah Anne Hughes

Updated June 27, 5:40 p.m.

HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania House adjourned Monday, perhaps for the rest of the summer.

The 203-member body did so without voting on a number of high-profile bills, most notably one that would open the door to radically altering the way the state draws its congressional and legislative boundaries. It was a disappointing outcome for an impressive grassroots surge calling for an end to gerrymandering in Pennsylvania.

But just because the House is on summer break doesn’t mean the fight for reform is over.

A number of redistricting bills languished in both chambers until the League of Women Voters turned up the heat by filing a lawsuit challenging the state’s congressional districts. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court sided with the league and drew new congressional boundaries for the 2018 election after the General Assembly failed to submit a plan the court was satisfied with.

Ultimately, state Sen. Lisa Boscola’s Senate Bill 22 emerged as the bill to beat. The legislation, which would create an independent(ish) redistricting commission of average Pennsylvanians, passed the Senate’s State Government committee and won approval in that chamber.

But that progress stalled out in the House, and now it appears redistricting reform may not happen in time for the next census. How did this happen? And what should we expect next? Let’s break it down.

How did we get here?

For decades, groups like the League of Women Voters have been calling on the General Assembly to change the commonwealth’s redistricting process. These efforts ramped up with the creation of Fair Districts PA, which has mobilized Pennsylvanians to advocate for redistricting reform, and with a lawsuit that resulted in the Pa. Supreme Court redrawing the state’s congressional districts.

OK, wait. Can we take a step back? What is redistricting?

Redistricting is the process by which new congressional and legislative districts are drawn. It happens every 10 years to accommodate population changes as reported by the U.S. Census.

Legislative districts — or those for state senators and representatives — are drawn by majority and minority leaders from the House and Senate, as well as by a person appointed by the leaders or by the state Supreme Court if they can’t agree. (Spoiler: they usually can’t.)

Congressional districts — for representatives in the U.S. Congress — are created by legislation that passes both state chambers and is signed by the governor. If the redistricting process stays the same, the next congressional district bill may be signed by a Democrat (incumbent Tom Wolf) or a Republican (his 2018 challenger Scott Wagner).

Thanks. So … what’s up?

Pennsylvania will redraw its boundaries after the 2020 census. While the Pa. Supreme Court provided new congressional districts for the 2018 election, proponents of a reformed redistricting process want permanent changes to be in place as soon as possible.

But that requires an amendment to the state constitution, which in turn requires approval from the voters. To get an amendment on a statewide ballot, legislation must pass both General Assembly chambers for *two consecutive sessions.*

This is session No. 1 for SB 22, which the House did not vote on before leaving Harrisburg Monday. That doesn’t bode well for reform being enacted in time for the next redistricting cycle.

Why?

Because newspaper ads.

Per the state constitution, information about the proposed amendment must be published “in at least two newspapers in every county” three months before the general election on three dates. This happens after the bill passes the assembly the first time.

While that seemingly puts the House deadline at the beginning of August, the Department of State asks the General Assembly for about six weeks to prepare the ads. According to a spokesperson, that includes time for the Attorney General’s office to draft a plain English statement and for the language to go through a number of legal reviews.

If your next thought is “uh, wouldn’t that mean the bill needed to be passed yesterday?” it’s important to note that there’s no hard deadline from the department (no, we’re not sure where that July 6 date being tossed around is coming from). These are simply guidelines.

As there are no scheduled sessions from now until fall, Speaker Mike Turzai would need to recall the House. Soon.

Hmm. So why didn’t they vote?

Ultimately, leadership decides what comes up for a vote. In this case, House Leader Dave Reed cited the hundreds of amendments attached to the bill after its passage in the Senate as reason not to bring it up.

Wait — hundreds?

Hundreds, my friend. Advocates believe some amendments were put forward in good faith, like one from Rep. Steve Samuelson, but they say others were tacked on to drag the bill into oblivion because of what happened in the Senate.

What happened in the Senate?

So glad you asked. As the bill was being considered in the Senate for the third and final time, Lancaster’s Ryan Aument offered an amendment that would further alter the constitution to provide for judicial representative districts.

That means that instead of the entire state voting for Pa. Supreme Court justices, each of the seven would instead be elected by a regional judicial district. The same would go for Superior and Commonwealth Court judges.

The amendment passed along party lines. Democrats were extremely mad, not because some don’t want reform on this issue, but because they saw the amendment as an 11th-hour “poison pill.”

Rep. Matt Bradford, a Democrat who offered dozens of amendments in the House, said he was concerned that, in a rush to pass the budget, SB 22 would have been approved with the Aument amendment attached. He said many believed the amendment to be retribution for the Pa. Supreme Court’s ruling on gerrymandering and was a non-starter for many Democrats.

I mean, is this bill even good to start with?

Ah, a complicated question.

The preferred House redistricting bill appeared to be HB 722, which would have created a nonpartisan commission and had 110 cosponsors (more than enough to pass the House). But that legislation was gutted by Republicans in Rep. Daryl Metcalfe’s State Government committee.

SB 22, as originally drafted, would have randomly selected four registered Republicans, four Democrats, and three people with other affiliations to serve on a redistricting commission. The bill was amended by state Sen. Mike Folmer to give the appointment responsibility over to the General Assembly.

While many groups withdrew their support because of the Folmer amendment, Fair Districts PA stood behind it — until the Aument amendment.

Is there any hope for this to still happen?

The members of the House could be called back at any time by Turzai, and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman has vowed to bring back his chamber if needed. According to a spokesperson for House Democrats, staffers are continuing to go through the amendments, but it “doesn’t look like a breakthrough is imminent.”

Fair Districts’ Kuniholm said the group is also going to lobby Gov. Tom Wolf to call a special session. The group March on Harrisburg organized a camp-in outside his capitol office Tuesday to make that demand.

If that fails, Kuniholm said Fair Districts will be pressuring leadership in their districts this summer.

“You want to spend the month of July having us in your home districts getting voters angry,” she said, “we can do that.”

Want some more? Explore other The Incline in Harrisburg stories.

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