AMBLER >> A statewide effort to end gerrymandering in Pennsylvania was reflected locally March 21 when Ambler Borough Council unanimously passed a resolution in support of establishing an independent citizens redistricting commission.
Gerrymandering is the practice of manipulating electoral district boundaries for political advantage by the party in power, in essence providing legislators control over who votes for them rather than letting voters determine who is placed in office.
Ambler joined 16 other municipalities that passed the resolution, according to the website of Fair Districts PA, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit leading the effort to change the way legislative boundaries are drawn.
Ambler resident Olivia Castello, who introduced the resolution to borough council, wrote in an email that gerrymandering “disenfranchises me and other Pennsylvanians when our districts are not as competitive as they should be.”
Noting legislation has been introduced in Harrisburg to amend the state constitution to reform the redistricting process by “using fairness and sound methodology in a nonpartisan fashion,” the resolution supports having districts drawn by an independent citizens redistricting commission.
“When the average congressional district contains 711,000 people, it is mind boggling that Montgomery County, home to over 820,000 residents, does not have a single member of Congress representing our interests,” Ambler Borough Mayor Jeanne Sorg said in an email. “We no longer have even one member of Congress from our county. This is not a partisan issue. When legislators get to choose their voters, we are all left unheard.”
Ambler was the first municipality in Montgomery County to pass the resolution, Fair Districts PA Co-Chair Carol Kuniholm said, noting the organization has 30 local groups across the state — six in Montgomery County — asking local officials to pass the resolution.
In addition, meetings are being held “to educate people regarding gerrymandering,” which has led to hundreds of volunteers signing up.
Redistricting occurs every 10 years following the census to account for shifts in population — districts are required to have roughly equal populations. When the lines were redrawn after the 2010 census, Pennsylvania lost one congressional seat, and currently has 18 congressional, 203 state House and 50 state Senate districts.
In the 2011 redistricting, Montgomery County was split among five congressional seats, none having Montgomery as the largest part of its district and only one having a representative living in the county. The 7th District, which includes parts of five counties, has been described as one of the 10 most gerrymandered districts in the country.
Districts are supposed to be geographically compact and contiguous and cannot unnecessarily divide existing geopolitical entities, but traditionally, in Pennsylvania, whichever party holds the majority of power controls the redistricting process, often marked by attempts to hold onto or grab seats.
Several bipartisan bills have been introduced in the state House and Senate this year that would take redistricting out of the hands of whatever political party happened to be in power.
Any change will have to be approved by the Legislature in two consecutive sessions, at which time it could go on the statewide ballot for voters to decide before the 2020 census.
Senate Bill 22, introduced by Sens. Lisa Boscola, D-18, and Mario Scavello, R-40, is one of several bills calling for a change in the way electoral boundaries are drawn that have been referred to the State Government Committees. Fair Districts PA is supporting SB 22 and a soon-to-be introduced companion bill, House Bill 722, Kuniholm said.
Under SB22, a Redistricting Commission comprised solely of independent citizens would be established to include four individuals registered with the largest political party in the state; four registered with the second-largest party; and three “with affiliations that are not of either of the two largest parties.”
The commission would develop a preliminary plan for congressional and state legislative districts and hold public hearings, after which it would vote on the plan. Seven votes, with at least one from each of the commission’s subgroups, would be needed for approval.
California authorized a similar commission in 2008, an independent citizen-based commission was upheld in Arizona, and incumbent-drawn maps are being challenged in other states, a memo attached to the bill notes.
“The aim of this bill is to produce a redistricting process in our commonwealth that truly reflects the essence of our democracy — voters selecting their representatives, not the other way around,” the memo states.
“We believe strongly there should be an independent commission,” Kuniholm said. A “conflict of interest” under the current system “undermines the integrity of elections.”
Prior to last year’s election “people weren’t paying attention,” but are now “trying to figure out what is wrong,” she said.
“In Pennsylvania you don’t really have much choice, and people are realizing it’s an issue of real importance,” Kuniholm said. “A lot of legislators have received calls and visits from constituents. It’s a very different climate.
“We are no longer asleep. We want this fixed.”