By State Rep. Tom Murt
“Gerrymandering is a form of political subterfuge that stifles real political debate and deprives citizens of meaningful choices.” – Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan
Intemperate partisanship is one of the most serious challenges facing effective government today, and gerrymandering is one of the root causes. Every 10 years, the legislature in Harrisburg amends legislative boundaries to reflect shifts in population. Ostensibly, this process is undertaken to balance the population in each 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 fair.
We use a process whereby activist measures are taken to protect incumbent officeholders of both parties. All one needs to do is to look at some of the geographic district boundaries that have been drawn over the years to understand the problem. Journalist Chris Satullo says many districts look like “bizarre, wandering boundaries that maximize partisan advantage.” Make no mistake, both political parties are guilty of gerrymandering.
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 basic problem is that politicians are the ones who decide on redistricting, essentially permitting them to select their own constituents, rather than the other way around.
Thankfully, there are legislative remedies that are under consideration in Harrisburg that address this problem.
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 nonpartisan commission would 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.
I have introduced House Bill 22, which is a bipartisan proposal that reforms the way that House and Senate districts are decided. My colleague, Rep. Steve Samuelson, has written House Bill 23, which reforms how congressional districts are cut. Hopefully, these legislative proposals will gain support this session and will advance through the legislature.
The stakes are high, and the success of our representative and democratic form of government depends on it. Express your support of redistricting reforms to your elected officials. Please go to my website for legislative updates. ••
Rep. Thomas Murt represents the 152nd Legislative District, which includes parts of Eastern Montgomery County and the Northeast.