Notes on the 4/21/12 redistricting forum in West Chester
As the state’s redistricting snafus are about to get back in the headlines (the Legislative Reapportionment Commission will meet again on June 8 to address its own proposal #2), I wanted to look back to the very informative forum on that subject held this spring in West Chester Borough Hall.
You may have read the account “Panel reviews Pennsylvania redistricting” by Jim Callahan, Daily Local News, 4/23/12.
Since blogs have fewer space constraints than daily newspapers, I’m going to mention some further highlights that I thought ought to be preserved for posterity.
Here for the record is the outline distributed at the forum:
“The Great Pennsylvania Redistricting Reversal of 2012: How it happened, how it affirmed citizens’ rights, and how it changed this year’s elections”
April 21 2012, West Chester Borough Hall
Carolyn Comitta , Mayor of West Chester, appellant (with Borough Council President Holly Brown) for the Borough on state plan #1
Amanda Holt (http://amandae.com/), author of redistricting maps praised by the PA Supreme Court
Sam Stretton, attorney for the West Chester and Phoenixville appeals to the Legislative Redistricting Commission
Tim Potts, co-founder and political analyst, Democracy Rising Pennsylvania (http://www.democracyrisingpa.com/)
Why does redistricting matter?
What can be done?
Tim Potts was press secretary and director of communications for the Democratic party, and worked in part for long-term Democratic leader Bill DeWeese (House majority leader, 1990-93; Speaker of the PA House, 1993-94; House minority leader, 1994-2006, per Wikipedia). Reacting against illegal and unconstitutional actions he observed with dismay in Harrisburg, Potts founded Democracy Rising PA in 2004,
As Potts pointed out, DeWeese was to be sentenced to prison three days after the forum, and the 1991 redistricting process was conducted by five committee members of whom, as it happens, three have been or were about to be in jail.
West Chester Mayor Carolyn Comitta pointed out that the underlying redistricting issue is to protect individual rights. Splitting West Chester, the county seat, would have harmed the region and diluted voters’ voice.
Amanda Holt gave historical retrospective about why keeping political subdivisions need whole protects the voters’ interests. “If you care about your taxes, you should care about your representation.” And doesn’t everyone care about their taxes?
Sam Stretton paid tribute to Holt, who “on her own went through the torturous process” of calculating redistricting proposal for the entire state—which made the real difference in to the Supreme Court. He then traced struggles over redistricting back to gerrymandering two centuries ago (the word, derived from Governor Gerry of Massachusetts, was first used in 1812. The contemporary image below is from Wikipedia, “Gerrymandering”:
According to Potts redistricting, though a mere procedure, can empower citizens if done well. But it’s not being done well: this fall, more than half the state’s legislative seats will be uncontested: “insane!” “We not only have taxation without representation, we have representation without representation.”
Voters, Potts said, want all candidates, including Independents and third party members, to have the same conditions to get on the ballot. But that isn’t happening, because redistricting is done badly here. “Sign up, speak up, show up”—the three S’s without which voters lose power (and they have lost it in PA).
Amanda Holt began her quest in October, 2010: she wanted to be an informed voter. She found her close neighbors were being assigned to a different district; she consulted the state constitution and decided that the only way to prove too much municipal splitting was to design her own maps—which went on to win the case!
Her principle was to put population balance first (with a 10% maximum deviation), then to keep counties whole. The Commission seemed impressed by her September, 2011, testimony, but then ignored it. The Commission used a smaller deviation, but Holt found she could match that but still reduce splits over 50%. In November she presented two more maps, but again the Commission did not pay attention.
The last recourse was to appeal to the PA Supreme Court, which she did with the pro-bono aid of lawyers Michael Churchill and Jenny Gibson. The Court majority found her evidence compelling.
Carolyn Comitta recounted how West Chester assembled a team to testify in November: herself, East Bradford attorney Bret Binder, and WCU graduate student Rich Miller.
Sam Stretton saw the first plan splitting West Chester and Phoenixville as well as minority communities. Getting involved in this case was in line with his representing Ralph Nader in 2004 and the Green party in 2006, in their attempts to get fairer ballot access. Politics is no longer competitive and candidates can’t run without money. The 156th district, however, is competitive, and this year five of the eight Chester County legislative seats could change parties—but not with the Commission’s original redistricting.
Tim Potts: you couldn’t design a more conflicted system than a commission of four party leaders who choose a fifth member. When he was working in Harrisburg, Democratic leader DeWeese told him which were the safe seats of the two parties and that “we figure we need to allow 30-40 safe seats.” Seats are made safe by limiting competition through registration advantages based on voter performance history. Incumbents are protected by staying in their own districts unless party leaders want to punish them; for example, in 1991, DeWeese let two Democrats be taken out of their own districts. It’s a power game not for the people’s benefit. In Harrisburg, as far as redistricting, there is only one party: the Incumbent Party.
Amanda Holt: legislators pressure the Commission to keep their seats safe, but we can pressure the them to pressure the Commission to follow the Constitution—concretely, at the scheduled May 2 hearing. Under the new maps, Chesco suffers by being divided into four Senate districts when two would suffice; and two Chesco municipalities would still be split. And though population warrants Chesco having eight House districts, the new plan has it split into nine, plus parts of other counties.
Carolyn Comitta will go to Harrisburg on May 2. Public officials swear to protect public health, safety, and welfare, and they ought to do it.
Sam Stretton intends to file a brief about the plan to split Phoenixville (again) and West Goshen (instead of West Chester). People need to get active to keep their rights. Why isn’t the next generation more involved? The 7th Congressional District is a mess and should be struck down on a 14th amendment (equal representation) basis.
The 7th covers rural and suburban parts of 5 counties; it’s the least compact district in the country! Why? To change the population from 48% Republican to 52% Republican. People need to stand up; he’s sick of politics being all about money, with little competition.
Tim Potts: voters should make reform the condition of holding office in Harrisburg. House Bill 763, providing for a constitutional convention, has a handful of sponsors, and could deal with many issues. HB 153, to decrease the size of the legislature, is moving ahead; the real motive is to keep control and stave off a convention (which conceivably could cut the legislature in half or go to a single chamber).
He has started a new organization, The Majority Party PA, designed to promote the will of the majority rather than of political interests. The public needs to publicize corruption and promote write-in and Independent candidates.
What about the proposed new boundaries of the 156th district, which are not “compact”? Stretton: “Pure gerrymandering.“ Holt: any unnecessary split normally favors the incumbent. Potts: look where opponents of the incumbent live.
Why is Easttown split even on Holt’s maps and why doesn’t the Tredyffrin-Easttown School District share a legislative seat? Holt: you just have to split somewhere within a 5-8% deviance; now that more seems permitted, fewer splits should be needed. 32 states’ districts have about 9% population variation, PA only about 6%.
Who were the former Commission members who went to jail? Holt mentioned former House D leader DeWeese and former House R leader Perzel, though redistricting was not the cause.
How many districts actually change party affiliation? No one knew.
Why doesn’t the Supreme Court just use Holt’s plan. Stretton doesn’t think Castille is willing to be the swing vote again. It was thought Justice Saylor would join him before, but Saylor wants to be Chief Justice. [n.b. Castille’s term expires Dec. 2013 and Saylor’s in Dec. 2017; both are in their last terms due to the age 70 limit.] But from a constitutional law standpoint, the appellants should win again. Could it help for the public to pressure legislators?
Potts: It depends how publicly people emphasize the “absolutely necessary” clause.
Did the Court put the burden on the Commission to comply? Stretton: Yes, and 2021 will be important too. The PA political system is broken, and it’s time for radical change.
Potts: It’s a classic power struggle between branches of government. Chief Justice Castille was put out by the low funding of the Supreme Court; his Court is saying: We can construe the law however we want.