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Move afoot to change how Pa. draws political boundaries

Speeches about how political boundaries are drawn don’t typically inspire rapt audiences. But when some of those attending Suzanne Broughton’s presentation at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library left after 15 minutes Thursday night, it wasn’t due to boredom. It was because the crowd was larger than fire codes permitted.

“There is a growing head of steam” about legislative redistricting, said Ms. Broughton, a longtime activist with the League of Women Voters. “Some of that comes from the 2016 election, and some is a matter of people waking up to the fact that this is not representative democracy.”

Concerns about gerrymandering, the carving up of legislative districts into shapes to benefit a political party, are not new. But increased public attention is being encouraged by Fair Districts PA, a project of the league and government-reform group Common Cause.

Fair Districts has been arranging talks like Ms. Broughton’s across the state. It’s also launched a website, www.fairdistrictspa.com, complete with a tongue-in-cheek video testimonial by “Jerry Mandering,” whose “No. 1 priority” is his houseplant — and removing competition for his legislative seat.

As Ms. Broughton argued during her address, Pennsylvania is often a toss-up in races for statewide offices such as U.S. senator or governor. But Republicans have a sizable edge when district lines are in play: The GOP holds 13 of the state’s 18 congressional seats, and have a commanding majority in the state Legislature.

PG graphic: Examples of gerrymandering
(Click image for larger version)

“That doesn’t impress me as something that represents the people of Pennsylvania,” Ms. Broughton told Thursday’s crowd.

Congressional boundaries are drawn up by Harrisburg legislators after every 10-year census, with the map passed like any other bill. State legislators’ own districts, meanwhile, are crafted by a panel of Democrat and Republican leaders, with a tiebreaking member chosen by the state Supreme Court. But though the processes are different, critics say the results are the same.

Computer mapping allows parties to cobble together districts of like-minded voters, or to quarantine dissenters. Some districts, like Western Pennsylvania’s 12th, have been drawn and redrawn to pit incumbents against each other. The sprawling districts that result can make officials inaccessible, while resembling a Rorschach test for political ambition: Pennsylvania’s Seventh Congressional District, near Philadelphia, has been likened to a picture of Donald Duck being kicked by Goofy.

Such criticisms played well in Mt. Lebanon, a largely Democratic suburb that backed Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in last year’s presidential election but is represented in Congress by Republican Tim Murphy, who ran unopposed last year.

For people like Regina McCarthy, nonpartisan Fair District PA’s effort is “a relief.”

“When the results came in from this election, I felt like I needed to come out of hibernation,” said the Franklin Park resident, who joined the Fair District effort. In the North Hills, she said, “every person you might want to have run for office has to become a Republican first. … But it happens the other way in [heavily Democratic] Pittsburgh. It’s the way the game is played. And we’re trying to change the rules.”

That won’t be easy. Changing how state legislative boundaries are drawn requires amending the state constitution, a multi-year process capped by a referendum.

Fair Districts has rallied around one legislative proposal for doing so: Senate Bill 22. The bill would give responsibility for district drawing to a panel of 11 citizens, made up of Democrats, Republicans and independents.

Lisa Boscola, the Bethlehem Democrat who sponsored the bill, said it wasn’t just a partisan issue. Because state legislative districts are drawn by leaders, she said, rank-and-file legislators in both parties worry that “the leaders will ax the seats that are more independent. You have the leadership, not the public, deciding who stays and goes.”

The bill has eight Democratic and two Republican co-sponsors. Fair Districts PA hails it for offering a chance to “reduce the ability of either party to manipulate district lines.”

But none of the co-sponsors is from the Pittsburgh area, and Ms. Boscola acknowledges that previous attempts at such reforms have made little headway.

Supporting SB 22 “is not that clear-cut,” said state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, who leads Senate Democrats.

“I’m generally supportive of the concept,” Mr. Costa said, but the bill has “issues that need to be resolved,” including concerns about panel selection.

Mr. Costa fought a protracted court battle over districts drawn after the 2010 census, an experience that adds to his doubts that Republicans will change the process. But Democrats now have their own reason to maintain the status quo.

In 2015, Democrats won three open seats on the state Supreme Court. That all but assures that when it’s time to redraw state legislative districts after 2020, the tiebreaking panel member will be chosen by a Democratic-majority court.

“The tables have turned,” said Mr. Costa.

Terry Madonna, a veteran political observer and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College, hailed the Fair Districts effort as “the first time in a decade that we’re seeing a real push” on boundary-drawing. And more balanced districts, he said, mean “you might get more representatives who have to move to the middle.” Politicians who face competition only in primaries, meanwhile, typically face their party’s most hard-line voters, who are more likely to take part in the early vote.

But both parties have incentives to stick with what they have, Mr. Madonna said. Creating competitive districts, he said, “means you have to put some of your own members in jeopardy.”

To affect the redistricting that will follow the next census, SB22 must move this session. Although Ms. Boscola gave the bill only a 1 in 5 chance last summer, she said public attention had already raised its odds to 1 in 3.

“I’m very hopeful” SB22 can pass, she said. Otherwise, “things will just get worse, and we’ll have to wait until 2030.”

Chris Potter: cpotter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533.