Posted by Real-Time News.

House Bill 722 and Senate Bill 22 are aimed at the nonpartisan redrawing of legislative boundaries and maps.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have introduced bills to reform the system that redraws legislative boundaries — a system that critics charge is open to manipulation and can give a perfectly legal advantage to one political party over the other.

Partisan gerrymandering refers to the drawing of legislative district lines in a specific way in order to pack like-minded voters together, making districts overwhelmingly Democrat or Republican.

According to a recent study by the Electoral Integrity Project, Pennsylvania ranks third-worst in the nation for the fairness of its electoral boundaries.

One key example is Northampton County, which was part of the 15th Congressional District for 40 years, until it was carved into two districts after the 2010 census – with 52 percent staying in the 15th District that now stretches from Bethlehem to Hershey, and the other 48 percent moving to the 17th District that reaches north from Easton to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area.

15th Congressional District - 1972This map represents the 15th Congressional District in 1972, to which Northampton County belonged for 40 years. The 2010 census split the county into two districts – with 52 percent staying in the 15th Congressional district that now stretches from Allentown to Hershey and the other 48 percent going to the 17th district which goes from Easton to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area. (Courtesy photo from Fair Districts PA) 
15th Congressional District - 2011This map represents the 15th Congressional District in 2011. The 2010 census split the county into two districts – with 52 percent staying in the 15th Congressional district that now stretches from Allentown to Hershey and the other 48 percent going to the 17th district which goes from Easton to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area. (Courtesy photo from Fair Districts PA) 

17th Congressional District - 2011This map represents the 17th Congressional District in 2011. The 2010 census split the county into two districts – with 52 percent staying in the 15th Congressional district that now stretches from Allentown to Hershey and the other 48 percent going to the 17th district which goes from Easton to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area. (Courtesy photo from Fair Districts PA) 

The Pennsylvania Constitution outlines how legislative districts should be drawn, giving the power to five leaders – two from each party and one neutral member.

Districts are redrawn every 10 years after the national census, with the next one taking place in 2020. Thus, if change is going to be made to the process, the goal is for it to be by then.

Although the guidelines say districts should be drawn as a “compact and contiguous territory” and “as nearly equal in population as possible,” that is rarely the case.

Rather, critics say, political party leaders draw the districts with their own political gains in mind.

Why it matters

State Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton, has introduced a bill in the state House to change that.

“(Party leaders’) goals are political in nature,” he said. “They’ll draw the lines to benefit one party or the other. In some cases, they make deals with each other… without thinking about what makes sense for the citizens who live in those communities.”

He said partisan gerrymandering often results in a lack of compromise between those in office, fewer choices and competition in elections, the inability to hold incumbents accountable and an alienation of voters. 

Carol Kuniholm, chairwoman of Fair Districts PA, said 86 percent of Pennsylvania’s primary races were uncontested in 2016 and 50 percent of the general election races went unchallenged.

Fair Districts PA was founded in December by representatives from multiple organizations concerned about accountable government. It is a nonpartisan, citizen-led, statewide coalition organized to create a fair process for redistricting, according to its website.

“The reality is if the districts are drawn to be ‘safe districts,’ the legislatures are protected,” Kuniholm said. “They don’t have to listen to their people, they don’t have to appeal to their people.”

It can also result in economic harm, she said. Citing the Harvard Competitiveness Project, Kuniholm noted that the U.S. economy continues to be stagnant while others have rebounded more quickly. The project contends that the greatest detriment to the economy is a legislature that is not responsive to the American public – a ramification of gerrymandering.


Making a nonpartisan commission responsible for drawing districts would eliminate those problems and be more attentive to constituents’ needs, Samuelson explained.

“(In) districts that are drawn in a very partisan way – with either party – the (elected officials) sometimes align themselves with the more extreme elements of that party,” he said. “If you have a competitive district, the person elected to that seat is more likely to be responsive to the entire community, not just one extreme or the other.”

Opinion: End gerrymandering in N.J. and Pa. 

How to fix it 

In May, Samuelson and state Rep. Eric Roe, a Chester County Republican, introduced House Bill 722. The bill seeks to create an 11-member nonpartisan commission to redraw congressional and legislative district maps.

The bill currently has 94 sponsors from both parties. Out of the 1,500 bills introduced in the House so far in 2017, HB 722 is tied for the second-highest number of cosponsors of any bill this year, Samuelson said.

“If you had a nonpartisan group of folks drawing the districts, you’d have districts that were more competitive, and then you’d have elections that were more competitive,” Samuelson said. “The representation would be more closely aligned with each community.”

Changing the state constitution is a two-year process. The bill must first be considered by the State Government Committee. Lawmakers must then approve it in one legislative session and then in another two years later, after the voters have had a chance to elect a different Legislature.

If it makes it past the Legislature twice, it goes on the ballot and voters get the final say on whether it is approved.

In order to have the bill take effect for the 2020 census, the first round needs to be passed by 2018.

The House bill contains strict guidelines for how the 11-member independent commission would be picked, Samuelson explained. It will consist of four citizens from one party, four from another and three who are not registered with either party.

There are limitations on membership. For example, those on the commission cannot have served as an elected official within the past five years or be the spouse of an elected official.

There are also two random selections to narrow down the candidates for the commission. Opposing party leaders are each afforded the opportunity to exclude six people they believe may have a partisan agenda.

With these limitations and guidelines in place, Samuelson believes it would be “impossible” to stack the commission and skew it in favor of one party.  

State Sen. Lisa BoscolaState Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton/Lehigh, says her constituency has changed so frequently that people will call her, confused, not realizing that she is no longer their senator. (Courtesy photo) 

The bill was introduced with a companion bill in the Senate, Senate Bill 22. It was introduced by Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton/Lehigh, and Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Northampton/Monroe. 

Boscola said she has seen the negative implications of partisan redistricting first-hand. Her constituency has changed so frequently that people will call her, confused, not realizing that she is no longer their senator, she said. 

“Our state is looked at as a joke,” she said. “Whatever party is in control, they dictate the lines. …(Politicians) are listening to their party bosses and that’s it. They’re not really listening to the people. … People are no longer electing their leaders.”

What the public can do 

Similar bills have been introduced and shot down before, but the most important aspect of getting it passed will be public support, Samuelson said. Momentum is building and there has been a great deal of support for this initiative, he said.

“Party leaders do not want to give up this power… but we’ve got to change their mind, and I think strong public support across Pennsylvania will.”

Proponents say the movement is gaining steam in large part due to Fair Districts PA, which has over 40 endorsing organizations and more than 100 volunteers statewide. Because it has so many members, it’s able to meet one-on-one with representatives to advocate for reform.

“What I’m most appreciative for is the grassroots movement,” Boscola said.

On Thursday, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and other individuals filed a lawsuit alleging that the state’s congressional redistricting map is an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.

If constituents want to have a real say in state elections, now is the time to speak out, Samuelson said. 

Samuelson and Kuniholm urge people to call House and Senate members in support of the reforms, or call on the House State Government Committee to push it for consideration.

“We are for sale to the highest bidder, which hurts everyone, besides the party leaders themselves,” Kuniholm said. “Unless there’s a groundswell of public support, the bill will not get passed.”

Boscola echoed the call for public support, saying that if no one speaks out, nothing will change. Party leaders need to recognize that their re-election could be in jeopardy for them to change, she said.

“The system feeds the system,” Boscola said. “If you don’t think it’s going to change, you’re giving them what they want.”

Alyssa Mursch may be reached at amursch@lehighvalleylive.com. Find lehighvalleylive.com on Facebook