Immoderate partisanship is one of the most serious challenges facing elected officials today, and gerrymandering is one of the root causes of it. Every 10 years, the Legislature in Harrisburg adjusts legislative boundaries to reflect shifts in population. Ostensibly, this process is undertaken to balance the population in each legislative, senatorial and congressional district.
In our Commonwealth, the process of redistricting is done by five people: four of the members are the majority and minority leaders of both the Senate and House of Representatives, or deputies appointed by each of them. The four members select the fifth member, who serves as chairman of the commission. The process is clearly more of an ‘art’ than a science, and there are many ways to improve the process. The legislative intent of redistricting sounds fair, but the result that has evolved is not always as equitable as hoped.
We have a process whereby activist measures are sometimes taken to protect incumbent office holders of both parties. All one needs to do is to look at some of the district boundaries that have been drawn over the years to see the problem. Journalist Chris Satullo says many districts look like “bizarre, wandering boundaries that maximize partisan advantage.”
By definition, the term gerrymandering refers to adjusting the boundary lines of an electoral district so as to favor one political party or individual. Gerrymandering includes activities like “packing,” “cracking,” “kidnapping” and “hijacking.” These actions may be undertaken to attain some political objective such as protecting an ineffective or lazy, but politically connected, elected official; undermining a devoted elected official who might be a member of the wrong party; or forcing out of office an elected official who might be too independent or may have fallen out of favor with a political boss.
One of the worst results of gerrymandering is that elected officials in successfully gerrymandered districts do not have to worry too much about losing a general election, nor with empathetically listening to their moderate or independent constituents. The problem is that politicians are the ones who decide on redistricting, essentially permitting them to select their own constituents.
Thankfully, there are legislative remedies that are under consideration in Harrisburg that address this problem, but any changes to the redistricting process will require a change in Pennsylvania’s Constitution, which is a daunting task. This can only be accomplished by a bill being approved by both the House and Senate in two consecutive sessions and being approved by voters in a referendum. Yes, this is a daunting task, but the equitable redistricting of our legislative districts in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is an objective worth our efforts.
So how should we change the status quo relative to redistricting and toward what objectives do we work? We can start with a few goals such as taking the redistricting process away from the Legislature altogether, and by tasking an independent and nonpartisan commission to do it. This independent and non-partisan commission should be required to hold hearings, receive input from voters, and to be dedicated to the proposition of one person, one vote. Such a new commission will manifest a more open and transparent process when reapportioning and redistricting, as well as not being beholden to incumbent politicians.
The process should also be devoted to drawing the districts fairly, achieving more competitive districts, maintaining political subdivisions, being geographically balanced, keeping contiguous municipalities together when possible, giving consideration to communities of interest, and most of all - minimizing undue influence on partisan affiliation. At present, Pennsylvania House seats are more compact than they have been in 20 years, with less municipal splits than any redistricting since the 1970s, but more work remains to be done. Our current process is not perfect, nor does a perfect process exist, but there are amendments to the status quo that need to be embraced.
Hopefully, the current legislative proposals in the form of Senate Bill 22, House Bill 563
and House Bill 569
will gain support this session and will advance through the Legislature. The stakes are high and the success of our representative form of government depends on it. Express your support for redistricting reforms to your elected officials. Please go to my website, www.repmurt.com, for legislative updates.
Rep. Thomas Murt represents the 152nd Legislative District. Rep. Thomas P. Murt represents the 152nd Legislative District which includes parts of Eastern Montgomery County and Northeast Philadelphia.
Representative Thomas P. Murt
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: David Foster