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Chester County Press

No time for cartoons: Architects of state redistricting must be unbiased

01/30/2018 11:38AM ● By Richard Gaw
Last Monday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a ruling that essentially forces the hand of the state's Republican-dominated Legislature to smudge out the existing lines, shapes and contours that make up the state's current congressional district map, and redraw these boundaries. The lawmakers will have until February 15 to do so, in time for the state's May 15 primary, or else the Court will redraw the lines on their own.

The Court's ruling reinvigorated a conversation, an argument and perhaps an inconvenient truth that has been heard from all sides, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, for some time: that the state's congressional map has been unconstitutionally gerrymandered. Whatever directions the new lines will take, whether they be redrawn by elected officials in Harrisburg or by the Supreme Court itself, speculation is already running rampant that the outcome is very likely to favor Democrats, who could win an additional four or five seats by next November.

As a result of this court ruling, there is a widening belief that the Republican dominance in Harrisburg may come to a close – they now own 13 of the state's 18 congressional districts – a belief magnified by the results of last November's election that saw an anti-Trump resistance in the voting booth, a movement that has ignited a snowball avalanche of support from grassroots organizations, public and social media protest.

The news of the ruling, though not universally supported, has nonetheless forced the hand of the state's lawmakers to design a more fair and equitable system of districting, and while the pendulum may eventually swing in the Democrats' favor, does it ultimately swing toward justice, impartiality and the will of the voting public to eliminate all political biases?

No, it does not. Instead, putting the big magic marker in the hands of elected officials, no matter their party, and holding them responsible for controlling the state's Etch-a-Sketch board is akin to a hostage takeover of the state's entire political system, while the power of the voting public continues to blow according to the wind of whatever party serves in majority.

It will continue the festering wound of back-room legislation. It will not free up data, but pigeonhole it to favor a political party. It will continue the opportunity to hand-pick districts, create definitive lines of division and invite the influence of outside parties. Finally, continuing to give the assignment of redistricting to elected officials will create more examples of congressional borders like the one in the 7th District – which includes Chester County – a boundary so ridiculously drawn by and slanted toward one party that many who have criticized it believe that it closely resembles Donald Duck kicking Goofy.

Thanks to the ingenuity of two bipartisan bills introduced last year in Harrisburg, there is a way out of this potential mess. Pa. Senate Bill 22 and Pa. House Bill 722 both propose to create an 11-member independent citizens commission, chosen by the state's Secretary of State, to be in charge of both legislative and congressional redistricting. The commission would not include any current or recent elected officials, candidates, political party officials, or their aides or spouses, and will be charged with the task of establishing full transparency, one that will encourage public comment and influence prior to drawing up the new congressional district boundaries prior to adopting a final map.

We encourage those who support these two bills – members of the House and Senate and organizations like Fair Districts Pa. who continue to fight for fairness – to not lose control of the mantel. It is time to give the magic marker of our state's congressional boundaries to those whose intention is to draw a map of fairness, while keeping it away from our elected cartoonists.