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Senate panel OKs redistricting bill

Committee votes to create commission for voting machines

HARRISBURG — A Senate committee took a “first step” Tuesday to approve a legislative redistricting bill that sponsors said will be subject to amendments as it heads to the floor.

The State Government Committee voted 6-4 to support a proposed state constitutional amendment to create a new commission to handle the redrawing of both congressional and state legislative districts after the 2020 census.

Senate State Govern­ment Majority Chairman Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, called the committee vote “one first step,” and said he expects a number of amendments will be offered to it.

Senate Bill 22, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, would give the Legislature a deciding voice in selecting the 11 commission members. The bill carries the same number as a Boscola’s redistricting bill last session.

The membership would include four Democrats recommended by party caucus leaders, four Republicans recommended by party caucus leaders and three independents recommended by the governor. They would be confirmed by a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate.

Under the bill, a seven-member super-majority vote, consisting of at least two members from each registered affiliation group, would be required to approve a redistricting plan.

If passed as a constitutional amendment, this new commission would replace a decades-old system where a special five-member commission composed mostly of legislative leaders redraws state legislative districts while the redrawing of congressional districts is handled as a piece of legislation.

Boscola said the amendment faces a “tight timetable” to win enactment if it’s to be ready for the redistricting process that starts in the fall of 2021.

This would first involve legislative passage of the amendment by June 2020 and then adoption of the same amendment a second time by February 2021, she said. An amendment needs passage in two consecutive legislative sessions before it can be put to statewide voters in a referendum.

Folmer repeated statements made last session when the bill was first considered, stating that picking a commission by random selection would be a shirking of legislative responsibility.

Senate Democratic State Government Chairman Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, countered that jury members are selected randomly to decide issues of life and death in court cases. Williams did not mention that as part of jury selection, the prosecution and defense do have the ability to reject some members of the randomly-selected jury pool.

The redistricting advocacy group, Fair Districts PA, opposes the bill in its current form, but hopes future amendments will address concerns, said executive director Carol Kuniholm.

The State Government Committee also voted 6-4 to approve Senate Bill 48, sponsored by Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia, which would create a special commission to handle major decisions to decertify use of voting machines because of concerns about vulnerability to hacking or reliability. Under the bill, the decertification commission would provide recommendations for legislative approval.

Gordner said the Legislature needs to be involved in the decertification process especially on the scale the Wolf administration is considering in advance of the 2020 election.

Folmer warned of an undue rush to replace voting machines before a presidential election.

“I fear we are looking at a formula for disaster if we rush to install new machines rather than doing it right,” he said.

Both Folmer and Gordner, during a hearing held on March 26, debated the governor’s plans with Acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar, making arguments similar to those they offered during Tuesday’s committee meeting.

Williams said not replacing current machines with ones that have a paper record could lead to voters legally challenging the use of those machines.

“These machines do not meet the standards required for security,” he said.

The committee also voted unanimously to give a favorable recommendation to the nomination of Curtis Topper to continue as secretary of the Department of General Services, and to pass Senate Bill 178 to require political candidates to file campaign reports electronically.