JSPAN Testifies to PA House Members on Redistricting

Ken Myers provided the following testimony on behalf of JSPAN to the Pennsylvania House Government Affairs Committee at a hearing on March 13. The Committee, chaired by Representative Babette Josephs, took up H.B. 81 (Rep. Leach), H.B. 84 (Rep. Tangretti), and H.B. 2047 (Rep. Curry), all proposing amendments to the Pennsylvania State Constitution designed to change our method of setting Congressional and state legislative districts. Recounting JSPAN’s interest in the problems of redistricting in prior years, Myers urged two primary thoughts on the legislators: first, that the members of the Pennsylvania House and Senate hurt themselves through gerrymandered districts. And second, that the public does care about the redistricting process and its effect on the right to vote in general elections. Under the United States Constitution, at the conclusion of the census in 2010 Pennsylvania will be obligated to redraw its congressional districts. In order to meet the federal requirements of equal protection and “one man and one vote,” as well as present requirements of the Pennsylvania Constitution, state house and senate seats will also be redistricted. The redistricting process is central to representative government. The Pennsylvania Constitution prescribes a small commission, made up primarily of ranking legislators, to remap the state. But the redistricting process places the legislators in one of the most severe conflict of interest positions. Redistricting lines should command the respect of the electorate, but lines drawn by the present method are often illogical, and clearly designed to achieve predetermined results in elections. “Safe seats” deprive the public of the right to choose their representatives in a general election. Public perception of the existence of gerrymandered seats undermines respect for our elected representatives. Gerrymandered districts discourage voters from turning out to exercise their franchise. Gerrymandered districts also force the representatives to deal with unnecessarily large distances between constituents. Election campaigns in sprawling districts that cover several municipalities, and different media markets, are more costly and difficult for both challenger and incumbent. The sense of community, which should benefit from political campaigns and debate, is not helped when the legislative district stretches across many municipalities and communities. The gerrymander process shifts candidate selection to the primaries and party caucuses. But this in turn encourages extremist rather than centrist candidates. The legislative process itself becomes more difficult when the center ground is taken away. And candidates are forced to adopt positions they don’t believe, damaging their credibility. Centrists don’t want to be forced to move to the extreme wing of their party in order to fend off primary challengers. Once they are pushed to the extreme, their positions may prevent their future electability in a larger district, for a higher position. Our legislators insulate themselves from competition at the price of stagnation. The courts have backed away from dealing with redistricting, except in Voting Rights Act cases where federal law requires their participation. The 1962 case of Baker v. Carr in the United States Supreme Court introduced the idea that equal protection requires fairly drawn districts. But in seeking to achieve the requirements of the Constitution and Voting Rights Act, the courts became mired in “majority minority” districts and other issues, with no bright lines to guide them. After 40 years of experience, in 2004 the United States Supreme Court decided Vieth v. Jubilierer, challenging the redistricting of congressional seats in Pennsylvania. Justice Scalia and the three other conservatives on the Court ruled that redistricting issues were “non-justiciable”. They were joined in their ruling, but not in their logic, by Justice Kennedy, thus producing the five votes ne3eded for a ruling. Consequently the gerrymander problem lies with the Pennsylvania legislature and our state courts. JSPAN favors reform policies that put adequate independent review in place, to assure that redistricting is carried out fairly and transparently. The legislature cannot do it alone: it lacks the political center needed to develop a fair plan, and to secure public confidence in the result. There needs to be an oversight body, and in view of the desire not to politicize the courts further than necessary, an independent commission is desirable. An advisory commission is also a useful concept. At least a majority of any commission, decisional or advisory, should be private citizens. If there is a separate decisional commission, the advisory commission should have full access to the proceedings, records and staff utilized by the decisional commission. Districts should be compact and contiguous. Districts should follow existing municipal boundaries to the extent practicable within the “one man one vote” rule. Simplicity and transparency of the redistricting process is vital, in order to assure public understanding, and to permit implementation on a tight timetable every ten years. The Pennsylvania courts should be encouraged to review redistricting in a meaningful way. Some of the terms used in the three Bills under consideration could be clearer and better defined. For example, a person “aggrieved” can challenge a redistricting for 30 days. However, the statute would be clearer if it explained that any citizen of the Commonwealth is aggrieved. Legislative pronouncements need independent institutional support, in order to assure that sound public policies are carried into practice. Blue ribbon citizens from organizations such as the Committee of Seventy, the League of Women Voters and JSPAN should be enlisted in the process. Recognizing that there are stumbling blocks in the way of any instant change in redistricting methods, we nonetheless urge that any program you adopt include a mandatory time line that is not unduly prolonged. Voting is buy-in by the public in the workings of their government. Sound policy and practice in our election laws and process are very important legislative goals, and require reform of our present redistricting methods, Myers concluded.