Local municipalities support redistricting reform

Three boroughs and one township in Centre County have passed resolutions supporting redistricting reform.

That’s thanks to the efforts of Fair Districts Centre County.

The organization’s goal is to convince the rest of Centre County’s townships and boroughs, along with the county commissioners, to join Bellefonte, Howard and State College boroughs and Ferguson Township.

Fair Districts is pushing for redistricting reform to eliminate gerrymandering — the practice of drawing legislative and congressional districts in a way that favors one party or group.

On Dec. 7, Fair Districts PA announced a milestone: Clinton County, our neighbor to the north, is the first in the state to get its county commissioners and all 29 of its municipalities to pass redistricting reform resolutions.

Across the state, more than 150 municipalities and 13 counties have passed these resolutions, said Steve Zarit, coordinator for Fair Districts Centre County.

Gerrymandering is a nonpartisan issue — both parties do it, Zarit said.

The lines are drawn now in Pennsylvania by a five-person commission: the four party leaders and a fifth person who usually has to be chosen by the state Supreme Court.

With the help of computers and detailed data — block by block, even house by house, on people’s political affiliation and voting behavior — “districts have been drawn so precisely that they’re ironclad,” he said.

Incumbents don’t have to worry about losing their seats, except to people more extreme than them so they move more to the fringes, Zarit said.

It’s contributed to “deadlocked” politics in Pennsylvania, he said.

Politicians shouldn’t choose their voters, he said. Voters should choose their representatives.

“People get it. They want politicians who are responsive,” Zarit said. “They want politicians who, if they don’t like, they can replace. They want choices. They don’t want the same old same old.”

Two pieces of legislation, Senate Bill 22 and House Bill 722, have been introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature to reform the way that district lines are drawn, calling for a commission comprised solely of independent citizens.

The next round of redistricting is triggered in 2021 following the 2020 census.

The Electoral Integrity Project, an independent academic project based at Harvard University and the University of Sydney, last year gave Pennsylvania a score of 56 out 100 (based on 11 stages in the electoral cycle). It is tied for fifth worst in electoral integrity in the United States, ahead of only Oklahoma, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Arizona.

A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the 2011 maps is working its way through the state courts, and it could have implications for the 2018 mid-terms.

Redistricting reform is “so fundamental to everything else that no other problem can really be solved properly until we have fair elections that aren’t rigged,” said Debbie Trudeau, who’s also on the leadership team for Fair Districts Centre County.

Beyond garnering support from local governments, Fair Districts Centre County is also trying to increase awareness of the issue in various ways, such as its postcards to Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, campaign. The group hopes to hold a “gerrymandering walk” in the spring.

The group has “mushroomed” since its inception about a year ago, Trudeau said, noting that there are more than 1,100 people on the Centre County group’s email list.

“It’s been very gratifying (to see the group grow) at a time when it’s easy to just go to your political corner and yell at the people on the other side,” she said. “It’s been really rewarding to sort of fight the good fight that will benefit everybody across the line. We are all in this together. This is not about serving one party or the other. It’s about doing the right thing and having elections that are fair.”

Sarah Rafacz: 814-231-4619, @SarahRafacz