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Will state be dummymandered?

By Don Clippinger

Justice Elena Kagan, dissenting in the U.S. Supreme Court’s gerrymandering decision in June, unearthed a marvelously descriptive word: Dummymandering.

Gerrymandering is a made-up word, drawing on Elbridge Gerry and his drawing of a Massachusetts voting district that looked like a salamander in 1812. Dummymandering, Kagan explained, is a gerrymander that goes wrong and helps the opposing political party.

Pennsylvania is in danger of having a dummymandering. Unlike the dummymandering described by Kagan, Pennsylvania’s misstep would be to do nothing. And neglecting to reform how the commonwealth determines districts for Congress and the General Assembly has consequences for Central Pennsylvania.

Electoral districts are the building blocks of democracy, and democracy suffers when they are distorted. Voters are disenfranchised, and elections are stolen. After an egregious gerrymandering in 2011, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stepped in last year to reorder the congressional districts.

Pennsylvania now has an opportunity to get things right by instituting fair districts for Congress and the legislature as prescribed by the state constitution: Equal population, contiguous, compact, and with as few divisions of political entities as are absolutely necessary.

Time is short, however, because changing how the state legislative districts are drawn requires a constitutional amendment that must be passed in the current session and the one beginning in 2021 before going on the spring ballot.

Changing how congressional districts are set requires only legislation.

Three reform proposals, all calling for 11-member citizens commissions, are now under consideration. Fair Districts PA supports two House bills that would create one commission to determine both congressional and state legislative districts. It’s citizen-driven and the gold standard.

A Senate bill requires considerable interaction from legislators in choosing the commission. The Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission, appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf, last month proposed a citizen commission with some legislative involvement.

The legislative response to the report was cool, to say the least, and argued that state legislators and the governor are better equipped to set districts than 11 citizens.

Over the summer, I met with the county’s legislators, all fellow Republicans, and I found them to be fair-minded and passionately devoted to serving their districts. I would not hesitate to trust their judgment.

But legislators are expected to toe the party line, so a handful of legislative leaders call the shots.

If not an 11-member commission in some form, then the alternative is doing nothing. Therein lies the danger of the dummymander.

Much has changed since 2011, when the current districts were drawn. A gerrymander is only possible when one party controls both the legislative and executive branches. That’s changed. Congressional districts require the governor to sign off on the legislation. Ultimately, the state Supreme Court, now 5-to-2 Democratic, might have to resolve any impasse.

The Supreme Court very likely will have a hand in the legislative map. The Legislative Reapportionment Commission has two Republicans and two Democrats, and the Supreme Court makes the call if they cannot agree on a fifth member. Thus, the state Supreme Court could have a role in deciding all state districts.

Fair districts drawn by citizens offer the best path to maintaining the integrity of Central Pennsylvania in the electoral process. We have a common culture, and a fair map assures that our diverse Appalachian culture, as represented by county and municipal borders, retains its voice in the political arena.

If nothing happens and the current flawed structure remains in place, all bets are off. Fairness again might well be sacrificed to politics. And that would be a dummymander.

A journalist for more than 50 years, Don Clippinger is the Blair County coordinator for Fair Districts PA. He resides in Duncansville.

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