REMAPPED: The 200th legislative district of Pennsylvania was redrawn in 2012. The new district map (above) absorbed a portion of Germantown and Mt. Airy north of Washington lane all the way to the Wissahickon while a large portion of the district in Roxborough was removed.

Local meeting to take place on March 5

by Pete Mazzaccaro

Following last year’s general election, the issue of gerrymandering has received a renewed focus from activists. From grassroots groups holding meetings in local churches and homes to a viral video promoting fair districts by action film star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who supported a successful measure to reform redistricting while he was governor of California, activists believe sensible redistricting practices will go a long way in reforming our election process.

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing political district boundaries to favor a particular party and/or candidate. A recent report by the Electoral Integrity Project identified gerrymandering as the greatest obstacle to equitable elections in the United States.

“The practice ensures that representatives are returned time and again based on mobilizing party faithful, without having to appeal more broadly to constituents across the aisle, thus exacerbating the bitter partisanship which plagues American politics,” wrote the study’s authors, Pippa Norris, Holly Ann Garnett and Max Grömping.

It should come as no surprise that the same study found Pennsylvania to have worse practices around drawing district boundaries than every state in the nation except for Ohio and Wisconsin.

Last week, two Pennsylvania state senators – State Senators Lisa Boscola (D-Lehigh/Northampton) and Mario Scavello (R-Monroe/Northampton) – introduced a bill to address redistricting. The goal is to take the practice out of the hands of those who benefit the most: legislators.

Boscola’s and Scavello’s legislation – Senate Bill 22 – would establish an 11-member independent commission that would be responsible for maintaining district boundaries in the state. The commission members would include four members of the largest political party in the state, four from the second largest and three independents. Commission members would not be allowed to hold any party jobs or elected office. They cannot even be related to an office holder.

Both legislators sponsored a similar bill last year that went nowhere. They hope to have better luck this session.

“We need an independent system where voters select their leaders, not the other way around,” Boscola said. “The current process invites gerrymandering, robs citizens of competitive races and spurs the kind of partisan polarization that has stymied legislative work in both Washington, D.C., and Harrisburg.”

Several groups with local affiliates like Fair District PA and Common Cause PA, are holding frequent meetings and drumming up grass roots support to tackle the issue, which many believe is responsible for stagnating representation in state and federal districts and disenfranchising millions of voters across the country.

“Many acknowledge that Pennsylvania’s absurdly distorted districts ignore constitutional requirements of compactness and contiguity and make real representation impossible,” said  Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA and a member of the board of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania. “We know that change will only happen when informed and persistent voters join those legislators in demanding change.”

Fair Districts PA will hold a talk at Chestnut Hill United Church on March 5 featuring Keith Forsyth. A Roxborough resident who traces his political activism back to the Vietnam War era, Forsyth believes the election of Donald Trump in November of last year has renewed the focus on local political maps.

“The election of Trump with less than 50 percent of the popular vote has pushed many people into political interest and action, and a large number of those people are looking for change that is more fundamental than simply swapping office-holders,” he said.

Despite a renewed popular interest in the election process, Forsyth doesn’t think reform is coming soon.

“Redistricting reform in Pennsylvania won’t happen soon, but it can happen before the 2021 redistricting if enough people become active supporters of the campaign,” he said. “Step one in this process is to pass PA SB 22 and the companion House Bill before the end of the 2017-2018 session. This will not occur solely through making good-government arguments to the leadership of the legislature: the citizens of Pennsylvania have to insist on it.”

Forsyth will speak at Chestnut Hill United Church, 8812 Germantown Ave., on March 5, between 2 and 4 p.m. Forsyth’s presentation will be followed by a question and answer session. Anyone in interested in more information can visit www.fairdistrictspa.com.

Pete Mazzaccaro can be reached at 215-248-8802 or pete@chestnuthilllocal.com

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