Redistricting reform coming into focus

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The clock is ticking down on redistricting reform in Pennsylvania, a long-delayed effort to scrap the state's uber-partisan redrawing of congressional districts. The state House of Representatives and Senate have about a month to agree on a bill outlining a constitution amendment — a redundant, two-step legislative process that will require statewide voter approval, hopefully in time for the redrawing of districts after the 2020 census.

The issue is far from resolved in Harrisburg, even though solid majorities of Pennsylvanians tell pollsters they want to move their state out of the golden age of gerrymandering. That's the term for drawing district boundaries to maintain a partisan advantage, something Republican legislative majorities and former Gov. Tom Corbett did with alarming dexterity in 2011.

Earlier this year the Democratic-led state Supreme Court threw out the gerrymandered map and drew a new one, which is in effect for this year's congressional elections. That's another reason we need reform. While the court provided a welcome shake-up, judges shouldn't be drawing lines on a regular basis, either.

Replacing top-down, majority-dictated redistricting with a citizens commission has gained traction. State Rep. Steve Samuelson, a Bethlehem Democrat, has been the prime mover on this, but his bill has been thwarted twice by the Republican chairman of the House State Government Committee, Daryl Metcalfe — despite bipartisan support for the bill among House members.

In the Senate, Democrat Lisa Boscola of Bethlehem and Republican Mario Scavello of Monroe County have been leading the charge on a reform bill. Last month a senate committee, at the behest of Chairman Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, passed an amended version — which, while giving legislative leaders and the governor the power to the select the citizens on a redistricting committee, would still be a marked improvement over the current system. The citizens panel would be made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and three independents. It also proposes safeguards against the worst type of county- and community-mangling gerrymandering.

House Democrats haven't given up on their bill, which would select citizens for a redistricting panel in a more accessible, populist way, modeling it on reforms in other states. It's still the preferable option, but this being Pennsylvania ..

Procedural questions could still shackle a two-house consensus, even with Gov. Tom Wolf pledging to sign reform legislation. The Senate bill must be vetted and simplified so both houses can agree, but at least it provides a way forward. It's important, too, that House leaders steer any Senate-approved bill away from Metcalfe's committee, where it would face certain death. All this has to be completed by early July, because a constitutional amendment must be passed by two consecutive legislatures in identical form. Then it heads to the voters as a statewide ballot question.

Also looming: The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling this month on gerrymandering appeals from several states, which could change the landscape. That shouldn't dissuade Pennsylvania lawmakers from forging ahead on a better system.

Voters are sitting up, listening and watching on the issue of gerrymandering. They know how it distorts and dilutes their ballot power, and they're going to hold lawmakers responsible for a system corrupted by partisan majorities — both Republicans and Democrats, over the years — for too long.

The Express-Times

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