2011-12-29 / Local & State

House Districts Widely Criticized

Calls for change follow new Pa. U.S. House districts

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – The Pennsylvania Legislature appears unlikely to heed any calls to change a process that produced a new map of U.S. House districts widely criticized as a political product designed by Republican politicians to benefit Republican politicians.

Similar calls were heard in Pennsylvania a decade ago when the existing map was drawn by a different set of Republicans who controlled the governor’s office and Legislature. Some other states have responded to similar criticism, with several shifting the mapdrawing responsibility to committees considered as politically independent as possible.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, defended the new map he helped draw for Pennsylvania’s congressional districts, and contends that the legislators who draw and vote on it are more answerable to voters. He also notes that it passed with bipartisan support in the House, if not the Senate.

“I would say we’re more responsive to the electorate, which is what democracy is about,” Turzai said Friday.

Each state legislature has the prerogative to decide how to draw its state’s U.S. House districts, including the option of shifting the responsibility to a panel that is perceived as independent of political influence. But, Turzai added: “I don’t think it’s any less political. It’s the same, and politics is a factor, but it cannot be the overwhelming factor, according to the courts.’’

The new map for the 2012 congressional elections – called “the worst gerrymander in modern Pennsylvania history,” by Franklin & Marshall College political scientist G. Terry Madonna – shifts whole counties and some of the state’s larger cities into new congressional districts.

It contorts districts, notably the 7th District in suburban Philadelphia, into shapes that are difficult to describe – a mud splatter? It stretches others into substantially new territory. The 15th District, for example, now nestled along the Delaware River in the Lehigh Valley around Allentown and Bethlehem, will stretch all the way to the Susquehanna River as though a lump of dough flattened by a rolling pin. Two men, Republican Keith Rothfus in suburban Pittsburgh and Democrat Bill Vinsko in Wilkes- Barre, had publicly announced their intention to run for the U.S. House against an incumbent, when they suddenly found their homes just a hair outside of the redrawn districts in which that they had planned to run.

The map was drawn in private by a few top Republicans in the state Legislature, with input from Pennsylvania’s members of Congress. A nearly final version of it was made public Dec. 13, and it took nine days, including a weekend, to plow through committee and floor votes in the Republicancontrolled House and Senate and secure the signature of Gov. Tom Corbett, also a Republican.

Pennsylvania is represented by 12 Republicans and seven Democrats in the U.S. House – a notable achievement in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republican by four-to-three. Some Republicans have acknowledged that the map was drawn to ensure that incumbents get re-elected through the creation of politically safe districts.

Turzai and other mapmakers stress that the map must meet certain legal and constitutional guidelines, such as protecting the rights of minority voters and ensuring that each district has the same number of residents. Courts historically have not rejected a map because its design was driven by politics, rather than common- sense geography or like-minded communities.

In addition, the fact that Pennsylvania is losing a congressional seat demanded significant changes in the map – but not like alterations that top Republicans hammered into it, some say. The state is losing a seat because of its slow population growth compared to other states during the past decade.

Lebanon County Sen. Mike Folmer, who was one of a dozen Republicans to vote against the bill on the House and Senate floors, said the map looks like it was designed to spread the state’s Democrats as thinly as possible.

“You’re never going to ever take the politics totally out of this, but I think you can at least come up with a system that would make it the least political as possible,” Folmer said Dec. 14 after casting a committee vote against the bill.

Voters in other states have spurred a change to a commission that, in general, is supposed to ignore incumbency and political considerations, although many of the dozen or so panels are stacked with political appointees.

In Iowa, staff in a nonpartisan legislative service bureau draws the map and the Legislature votes on it, a change made about three decades ago and lauded by good-government group Common Cause as a model.

In California, a petition drive in 2010 mounted by voters and groups fed up with political stalemate resulted in a successful statewide referendum to hand off the map- drawing to a panel of residents. The first eight were picked by the state auditor from 30,000 applicants, and those eight then picked six other members. This year, the panel held 34 public meetings – compared to three in California a decade ago – and posted a draft of the map for public inspection for three weeks.

Among the supporters of the panel was the AARP, the California Chamber of Commerce and the California chapter of the NAACP. The Democratic Party had heavily criticized the creation of the panel, and the state’s Republican Party has unsuccessfully challenged the result in court.

Could it happen in Pennsylvania? Don’t bet on it.

Madonna, of Franklin & Marshall College, said there isn’t intense public pressure on the Legislature to change, and the body seldom gives power back to citizens. That means, he said, there’s “zero chance that the Legislature will modify the way in which it does redistricting.’’

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