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Redistricting ideas considered

Commission looks at ways to fix practice of gerrymandering

Gerrymandering — political parties in power drawing lawmaker districts so their candidates win — would seem to be an easy problem to fix.

But the work of the Governor’s Redistricting Reform Commission, which held its fifth of eight hearings in Altoona on Thursday, shows otherwise.

The state Constitution calls for districts to be of equal population, contiguous and compact, with municipal jurisdictions divided only when necessary, pointed out Don Clippinger, Blair County coordinator for Fair Districts PA.

Simply enforcing accountability to ensure those guidelines are followed should solve the problem, said another commenter, but, as commission member Wes Pegden observed, there are maps that apparently do just that, yet still favor the authors.

“(One such map proposed for Pennsylvania) looked great: it passed the eyeball test,” said Pegden, a member of the mathematics department at Carnegie Mellon University. “But it was still super-gerrymandered.”

Commission Chairman David Thornburgh agreed: “The rules don’t seem to have protected us,” he said.

It’s possible to make maps equitable, according to commenter Jeff Hyde.

It’s also possible to make the process simple, he said.

But not both.

“You can make it fair, or you can make it easy,” he said.

Gerrymandering is a national problem that came to a head in Pennsylvania in January 2018, when the state Supreme Court struck down the 2011 U.S. House district map drawn by a Re­publican-controlled General Assembly and a Republican governor, under which Republicans enjoyed a 13-5 congressional delegation majority for three elections, despite a Democratic edge in voters.

The court, which has a Democratic majority, redrew the maps, and in November, the delegation ended up split evenly, 9-9.

Under the current “weird” system, candidates pick the voters, instead of the other way around, said commenter Steve Bacza of State College.

Lots of Thursday’s discussion centered on who should get to draw the maps.

It gets complicated when one considers the problem of who gets to choose who draws the maps, and even who gets to choose who gets to choose, Thornburgh said.

The state should create “an impendent commission to move political considerations out of the way,” Clippinger said. “(To) look strictly at the data.”

One way help ensure depoliticization is to prohibit the use of citizen voting records in drawing the maps, said commenter Willem Vanderberg of Howard.

Another way is to enable party representatives to “strike” proposed opposition members from consideration for the mapmaking group, like lawyers can strike proposed jurors, Vanderberg said.

Transparency also would help, Hyde said.

So might a reconsideration of the principle of communities — away from the old political divisions of county and municipality and toward communities based on social media, Hyde said.

Following the constitutional rules, no matter how faithfully, won’t eliminate districts that are safe for one party, and the existence of any such districts is a violation of democracy, because it essentially nullifies the votes of minority party members, according to commenter Kyle Hines of State College.

The solution is to imitate the many European nations that use proportional representation, he said.

That could be done by vastly increasing the number of representatives — from one per district to half a dozen, then assign seats to party candidates in proportion to the percentage of votes received in elections.

Thus, if the Democrats receive 30 percent of the vote in a district, it would get 30 percent of the seats in that district, he said.

“It ensures that all votes matter,” he said.

Such a policy would make gerrymandering moot, because the practice would lose its power to disenfranchise minority party voters, he said.

It might actually be a concept that could be duplicated without enlarging the number of representatives — by considering the state as a whole and assigning seats in the state delegation in proportion to each party’s percentage of the popular vote.

At least one commenter disagreed with Hines’ characterization of safe districts as inherently unfair.

He lives in a conservative district, one that nowadays is “naturally Republican,” he said. “You can’t (and shouldn’t, he implied) make it competitive,” he said.

While it may be hard to design, reform is a popular goal among Pennsylvania citizens, although it has evoked consternation among lawmakers, who have the most to lose, commission members said.

Still, all hesitancy about reform isn’t self-serving, according to Thornburgh and commission member Amanda Holt.

The current method of drawing districts has been in place 57 years, and new practices can bring unintended consequences, Thornburgh said.

Some people are more comfortable with known deficiencies than unknown benefits that might also carry unknown deficiencies with them, Holt said.

“It’s scary,” she said.

And the making of new laws has always been an uncertain business, Pegden said.

“It’s been compared to programming without debugging,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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