Un-Fair Districts PA

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

A few weeks ago on Election Day I stood outside of my local fire hall which serves as the polling location for our precinct handing out poll cards for our slate of candidates. Mid-morning an older gentleman showed up and posted a sign touting “Fair Districts PA.” He then proceeded to ask voters to sign a petition against gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is the drawing of congressional and/or legislative district lines to benefit one party over another. It is a process almost as old as the republic itself so named after Elbridge Gerry who as Governor of Massachusetts in 1812 signed into law a congressional redistricting plan that included one district which bore a striking resemblance to a salamander, thus giving birth to the term gerrymander.

As are all subjective processes, gerrymandering is in the eye of the beholder.  Over the decades various court rulings have taken the edge off the most egregious abuses of the redistricting process, but to some degree those with the power to draw district lines generally tilt the playing field a bit.

After next year’s census the process of redistricting will begin anew.  This constitutionally mandated exercise apportions congressional seats among the states, and then new districts are drawn within the states taking into consideration the population shifts of the previous decade.

Now, of course, most people are at least in theory opposed to gerrymandering so the gentleman at my polls got a few signatures. He did, however, misrepresent the current process as unfair and touted a so-called “fair” alternative, which we will get to shortly.

Is the current process fair? Let me answer that question with another question: Do you believe the process by which a bill becomes law is fair?  Because that is exactly how congressional redistricting is accomplished in Penn’s Woods.  Congressional redistricting takes the form of a bill, which must be passed by both houses of the General Assembly and signed by the governor.

That means 253 elected representatives of We the People (our state house and senate members) vote on the bill.  That occurs after the legislation is fully vetted through the committee process, including massive amounts of public input, then debated and voted on in legislative session before going to the governor’s desk.

The process is open, transparent, and constitutional. As we approach the 2021 redistricting it is also politically balanced as it is likely the General Assembly will be controlled by Republicans and a Democrat governor will be in office.  In fact, in 2011 – when the GOP controlled both the governor’s office and the legislature – the congressional redistricting plan passed the legislature with strong bi-partisan support.

“Fair” Districts PA proposes to ditch that process and replace it with an “independent citizens commission” which would then draw the district lines. So unelected “citizens,” or at least those motivated to invest a considerable amount of time and effort, can apply to be on the commission.

In a bow to identity politics, the applicants would then be “weighted” by racial, gender, and unspecified “demographic diversity.”  The proposed change then vests in the Secretary of the Commonwealth, who is a political appointee, the power to select the final pool of candidates.

Conveniently, the Secretary of the Commonwealth who will be serving in 2021 when the next redistricting occurs will be an appointee of – as the Huffington Post has described him – the most liberal governor in America, Democrat Tom Wolf.

Further, the “fair” districts proposal would inject an element found in neither the U.S. nor Pennsylvania constitutions – political parties. The “citizens commission” would be mandated to include four Republican “citizens,” four Democrat “citizens,” and three “citizens” who are either unaffiliated or members of a minor political party.

This lays bare the true goal of “Fair” Districts PA – a hijacking of the redistricting process to solidify the unconstitutional re-gerrymander of districts implemented by Pennsylvania’s rogue state Supreme Court in 2018.

Just as the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has turned out to be anything but affordable, Fair Districts PA has nothing to do with fairness and everything to do with changing the rules of the game to secure partisan political advantage.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is [email protected].)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.