Gov. Tom Wolf visited the borough Tuesday to seek his constituents’ thoughts on redistricting reform in the wake of a state Supreme Court decision that has implications for the upcoming elections.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Jan. 23 ruled, 4-3, that the state’s congressional districts are unconstitutional by giving an unfair advantage to Republicans.
The Republican-controlled state legislature has until Feb. 9 to send a new congressional map to Wolf, a Democrat, who in turn has until Feb. 15 to forward it to the state Supreme Court. If either of those things don’t happen, the Supreme Court will draw the map itself to keep the primary on track. The deadline to file the paperwork to run is March 6, and the primary is May 15.
Ten of Pennsylvania’s Republican congressmen, including U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard Township, issued a statement, calling the decision “misguided” and “an unfortunate example of the judicial branch inserting itself into the core functions of the legislative branch.”
State Republican leaders have also asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.
Gerrymandering is drawing legislative and congressional districts in a way that favors one party or group.
“I like baseball, and I like it when my team wins, but I would hate it if my team, the only way they could win is if each member of the team got five strikes and the other team only got two,” Wolf said. “That’s not a good game to watch.”
He was joined by a panel that included several Penn State professors and a state official.
It’s “antithetical” to everything Americans talk about in terms of their democracy, said Jessica O’Hara, associate teaching professor at Penn State in Communication Arts and Sciences.
Some in attendance expressed that the Supreme Court case is a good first step, but it’s not enough.
The case doesn’t change anything about the future, said Debbie Trudeau, co-leader of the Centre County branch of Fair Districts PA.
“The system needs to change,” she said.
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.
According to Jonathan Marks, commissioner of the Pa. Department of State’s Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation, changing the way the lines are drawn will require an amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution.
That would take about four years of work, he said.
The legislature would need to pass S.B. 22 and H.B. 722 in the current or next legislative session, which would need to be published. After that, the legislature would have to pass the legislation again in the following session. At that point, the governor would sign it, and it would be published again, Marks said.
A plain language version of the constitutional amendment would be drafted, and citizens would vote on it at the next scheduled election, he said.
It’s a lengthy process, Marks said, but ultimately the ratification of the constitutional amendment is put in the hands of the voters.
“The problem is that we have, whether it’s through distrust or just apathy or whatever, we’re not running and driving this democracy,” Wolf said. “So we give it to people — we give it up to people that we wouldn’t have dinner with to make decisions that are of huge importance. We have got to take this system back.”
Fixing gerrymandering is one of the ways to do that, he said.