The Pennsylvania court system may have ruled the current map of Pennsylvania’s congressional districts unconstitutional — resulting in new maps being drawn for the upcoming elections — but the decision and its effect will be moot in two or three years.
The maps the courts have undone were begun after the U.S. Census was conducted in 2010, and a new Census will begin in 2020, starting the process all over again.
There is nothing to stop whichever political party is in the majority then from drawing maps which some future court may declare equally unfair and designed to benefit one party or the other.
That’s why the nonpartisan activist group Fair Districts PA is advocating to take the drawing of those maps out of the hands of the people who benefit by their composition.
Fair Districts PA, a statewide group seeking to change the way those districts are drawn, is urging local governments to pass resolutions endorsing the creation of a “citizen’s commission” to draw the lines.
It would take a constitutional amendment, and that’s what a boilerplate resolution now making the rounds calls on the township and borough governments to support.
“The creation of a truly independent citizens redistricting commission devoid of political motivation or partisanship will help ensure a fair and accurate legislation and congressional redistricting process that respects political subdivisions, will prohibit districts from being drawn to favor or discriminate against a political party or candidate, will promote transparency, the use of impartial and sound methodology when setting district boundaries and allow for public input, and will fully comply with the constitutional requirement that ‘no county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward’ be divided ‘unless absolutely necessary,’” is how the key paragraph reads.
“It is a core principle of our republican form of government ‘that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around,’” wrote Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd in the majority opinion released Wednesday in the decision on the legal challenge to the current maps.
Mapping efforts in the last 20 years have become very sophisticated, and “use mapping technology and big data to profile voters, and use that information to pick exactly who they want in or out of a voting district,” according to the Fair Districts PA web site.
“Gerrymandering uses techniques like ‘packing’ and ‘cracking’ to target voters from a particular group, such as voters from the opposite party or minority or low-income voters, to reduce their influence,” Fair Districts PA argues.
For example, Pottstown, which votes Democratic in most elections, is divided into two districts in the state’s House of Representatives with part in the 26th District represented by state Rep. Tim Hennessey, a Republican. The majority of the 26th District is in reliably Republican northern Chester County, thus diluting Democratic votes in Pottstown.
The other part of Pottstown is located in the 146th District, which includes Lower Pottsgrove, Limerick, Royersford, Trappe and Perkiomen Township. Republican state Rep. Tom Quigley represents the district.
One extreme example of the result of this mapping methodology is Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, now held by embattled Republican Pat Meehan.
It has gained national notoriety, and not in a good way, for resembling “Goofy kicking Donald Duck” and twists and turns its way through four different counties in apparent conflict with the Constitutional requirement that municipalities not be divided when possible.
And it, and maps like it, have done what is designed to do — ensure Republican victories.
In the 2016 election, despite having a higher number of registered Democrats over Republicans, Pennsylvania elected 13 Republicans and five Democrats to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Some of those lopsided results — such as in the 6th and 7th districts — are in Southeast Pennsylvania where the voter registration trend has been moving away from Republicans and towards Democrats.
In fact the 6th District was cited in testimony before the supreme court by resident of Exeter Township in Berks County as an example of gerrymandering.
Thomas Rentschler, a Democrat, told the court that while he lives two miles from the City of Reading, “and that he has a clear ‘community of interest’ in that city,” Reading is in the 16th District while Rentschler is in the 6th District, represented by Republican Congressman Ryan Costello.
Montgomery County has also been carved up by the maps, Rich Rafferty, outreach coordinator for Fair Districts PA: Montgomery County, told members of the board in Hatfield Township last month.
Montgomery County’s total population of nearly 800,000 should be enough for the county to have one dedicated representative in Washington, Rafferty told the board, because the average congressional district in the state contains roughly 710,000 people — but because of the current map, Montgomery County is currently split between five different districts.
“Montgomery County — a big dog, a wealthy, important county in Pennsylvania — has been gerrymandered, split, cracked, all the verbiage you can think of, and we’re not getting the representation we need,” he said.
“There’s a total of 68 townships in Pennsylvania that got split or divided, in a variety of ways, for their U.S. congress person coverage. Sixteen of those occurred in Montgomery County, and Hatfield is one of those,” Rafferty said.
Hatfield Township is the only portion of the 8th Congressional District in Montgomery County, with the rest located in Bucks County, meaning Hatfield voters are only 12 percent of the constituency for U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-8th Dist.
Perhaps because Southeast Pennsylvania region has been so legislatively divided, its elected local officials are coming together in supporting the resolution calling for a new way of creating those districts.
The resolution authored by Fair Districts PA has been adopted in 48 municipalities in the last year — most recently in Upper Providence Township in Montgomery County.
But it’s not always a smooth ride and the resolution received a cool reception in Limerick Township Tuesday night.
Resident Oliver Kennedy appeared before the board and presented a copy of the resolution and explained its purpose, asking the board to consider adoption.
When he told Limerick’s supervisors the resolution had been adopted the previous month in neighboring Upper Providence Township, Vice Chairman Kenneth Sperring, a Republican, responded “this is not Upper Providence Township” and told Kennedy “this is being handled by the courts.”
When newly elected Supervisor Patrick Morroney, a Democrat, began to read a motion for the resolution to be adopted, Supervisor Thomas Neafcy, a Republican objected.
“This is politics. He’s reading from a prepared statement, this is a set-up,” he said.
Morroney’s motion received no second and died without a vote, although Sperring assured Kennedy “we will take it under consideration.”
After the meeting, Neafcy and Kennedy continued to argue the issue and Neafcy could be heard saying of gerrymandering, “you know both parties do it.”
The reception was a little warmer last month when the resolution was put before board the Hatfield Township, although no vote was taken.
Board President Tom Zipfel thanked the group for making their case, and called their presentation “remarkably timely” in light of the state supreme court decisions.
“A few weeks ago, when we started talking about this, we didn’t at all anticipate that it would be on the heels of a Pennsylvania supreme court decision, so we could not have timed that any better,” he said.
Digital First Media staff writer Dan Sokil contributed to this report.