While the U.S. Supreme Court considers Wisconsin’s proposed legislative district changes, we’re hearing that Pennsylvania lawmakers may be inclined to consider changing the way our state’s voting boundaries are set.
Traditionally, the party in power determines new legislative district borders based on population but in a way that gives that party the best opportunity to continue to remain in the majority.
The practice is known as gerrymandering — named for Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, who led just such a partisan redraw effort back in 1812.
Some recent examples in our region:
In 2016, Republican Wayne Langerholc won election in the newly aligned 35th state Senate district, which now includes GOP strongholds in Bedford and Clearfield counties. John Wozniak, a Democrat, had held the seat for many years.
After the 2000 census, state lawmakers realigned Pennsylvania’s congressional districts, putting two sitting House members – John Murtha of Johnstown and Frank Mascara of Pittsburgh – in the same district and forced a Democratic primary showdown. Murtha won, but the moment signaled a transition in the 12th district that led to Keith Rothfus, a Sewickley Republican, now representing the Johnstown region.
The former 12th district map — stretching from Johnstown south and west past Pittsburgh to Greene County — was once described as an upside-down flying dragon. Voters had little concept of the region represented by their congressman.
The new 12th looks more like a pendulum swinging up to the right — equally ridiculous.
In the Wisconsin case, lower courts ruled a redistricting plan as unconstitutional, halting the process. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has said he is confident the high court will declare his state’s GOP-led realignment effort constitutional, but the decision could be a year away.
“Voters should be able to choose their representatives, not the other way around,” Wisconsin Democratic state Assembly leader Peter Barca told reporters.
That’s the gerrymandering debate in a nutshell: Is the process unfair to voters?
We don’t like the fact that one party can maneuver the system to its own long-term benefit.
But voters do have some power. They can come out in support of either Republican or Democratic candidates.
More than a year ago, we reported that state Rep. Brian Sims, from the 182nd district in Philadelphia, was introducing a joint resolution to amend the state constitution and change the way political boundaries are established — taking the process out of the hands of elected party officials and assigning the task to a “neutral” committee.
Sims’ effort was unsuccessful.
Now, legislation introduced in May is gaining some traction in the General Assembly. This bill — which has 90 co-sponsors — would likewise establish a redistricting commission.
Taking the politics out of this political process could have far-reaching ramifications, as our Harrisburg reporter, John Finnerty, noted. If a bill to reduce the size of the Legislature were to emerge and be passed, how would Pennsylvania decide which districts would be merged or eliminated?
State Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown, noted that any change to the manner in which Pennsylvania establishes voting districts will need to pass through two votes by the Legislature and then a statewide referendum to amend the constitution.
And to have an impact on the next redistricting period after 2010, the process would need to move along in 2017 and 2018, Barbin told Finnerty.
Still, if Pennsylvania can find a way to create more reasonable district maps in a way that treats the voting process fairly, we’ll fully support the concept.
Barbin’s 71st House district, for example, looks a bit like a large ice cream cone on its side with a martini glass stuck in the top — if you use your imagination.
“A third-grader could draw better maps than we’re using,” Barbin said. “If a third-grader could do a better job, we ought to change the way we do it.”
We could hire a bunch of third-graders.
Or we could get serious about adopting a better process for setting our political boundaries.
—The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat