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Independent panel should draw districts

Back in 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court plunged a knife into the heart of a bit of political skullduggery known as “gerrymandering.”

They agreed with the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that the state’s congressional districts amounted to an unconstitutional “gerrymander.” In other words, the politicians who drew up the boundaries did so in a way— surprise, surprise! — that benefited their own parties.

Redistricting is performed every 10 years based on the results of the census. This year is the census, and that means another redistricting is right around the corner.

After sticking that knife into the heart of gerrymandering, the state high court ordered the Legislature and Gov. TomWolf to come up with new boundaries. When the two sides could not agree, the court took their knife and carved out new boundaries of their own.

Unfortunately, the court used its scalpel to treat the symptoms; it did not cure the disease.

With another census looming, there is every chance for politicians once again to be tempted to stack the deck in their favor. When the results of the looming 2020 census are known, the congressional districts once again will be redrawn.

The key question now will be just who should be wielding the pen that redraws those lines.

Right now that power lies in the hands of the Pennsylvania Legislature, which for years has been controlled by Republicans. Before the high court’s order tossing out the old districts, Republicans held a 13-5 edge in the state’s Congressional delegation. After the high court redrew the lines, the 2018 election produced an even split, nine Republicans and nine Democrats.

Any number of efforts to change the way Pennsylvania draws up congressional boundaries have been bandied about in Harrisburg. Most have failed, in no small part because it’s a tedious process that involves getting legislation passed by both the House and Senate in two successive sessions. And that only gets it on the ballot for a statewide referendum.

But that’s not the only way to skin the gerrymandering cat. Groups such as Fair Districts PA, a non-partisan statewide coalition that has been working for years to change the system, have been beating the drum for years for an independent commission to assume the duty of drawing up the congressional map.

Now that effort is getting a boost from Delaware County Sen. Tom Killion, R-9 of Middletown.

Last week he introduced Senate Bill 1023, designed to end the congressional gerrymandering by establishing an 11-member Independent Redistricting Commission to redraw the state’s congressional district lines.

In doing so Killion zeroed in on a complaint often heard when the notion of gerrymandering has raised its ugly head.

“Citizens should pick their legislators, not vice versa,” the senator said. In other words, under his legislation, no longer would politicians sit in a smoke-filled room and contort the lines to guarantee their party’s (and here we refer to both Republicans and Democrats – gerrymandering knows no party affiliation) candidates roll to easy wins. “The current congressional redistricting process in which legislative leaders propose a congressional redistricting plan that is then presented to the General Assembly for approval is irreparably broken.”

Good for Killion, who faces a stiff re-election test of his own in November, flying in the face of the newfound Democratic voter registration edge in Delaware County, and another wave of virulent anti-Trump fever that has cost the GOP dearly in the Philly suburbs.

He’ll get no argument from Carol Kunilholm, the longtime chair and co-founder of Fair Districts PA.

“When the outcomes of elections are pre-determined because districts are drawn to favor one political party, whether Republican or Democratic, you wind up with legislators more aligned with that party’s base rather than the interests of average voters,” Kunilhom said.

Killion’s plan would create a commission consisting of a randomly selected group of voters from both major political parties, independents and third-party members. Commission members and their spouses cannot not have been lobbyists, political staff or federal or state employees within five years prior to their appointment to the commission.

Killion is right. Voters should pick their legislators, not the other way around.

An Independent Redistricting Commission would be a big step in that direction.

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