Opinion

With another U.S. Census looming, it’s time to draw fair districts in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvanians have a problem. We have the second largest state legislature in the U.S., with 253 members on full-time annual salaries. In return, we get one of the worst-run states in the Northeast — ranked 36 out of 50 states by 24/7 Wall Street. We are stuck in a dysfunctional cycle of failure.

The cycle begins by putting four senior legislators and one other political insider in charge of drawing the boundaries of election districts. They use that power to rig elections that favor incumbents from the two major parties. Whether Republican or Democrat, the party that controls district boundaries increases the number of districts with safe majorities of its own voters by packing opposition voters into a relatively few districts. While fewer in number, these districts contain overwhelming majorities of the opposition.

As legislators unchallenged for re-election gain seniority, they move into committee chairs and other leadership positions. From there they block reforms that would break the cycle, even reforms supported by majorities of voters and rank-and-file legislators. Every ten years, after the U.S. Census, the senior legislators re-draw the districts, and the cycle continues. We are stuck with a legislature that operates more for the benefit of politicians than citizens.

Without competitive elections, both major parties descend into extremism. Legislators seeking re-election can ignore significant minorities inside their party and all voters outside it. Legislators are far more concerned about winning their party’s primary than the general election in the fall. Primary threats usually come from the far right for Republicans and the far left for Democrats — independents don’t even get to vote. Term limits wouldn’t help because new legislators would be produced from the same mold as the old.

If elections were competitive, candidates would have to hold onto moderates in their party, and win over swing voters. They would have to appeal to the political center.

Powerful legislators who are virtually assured of re-election are prime targets for lobbyists. Since Pennsylvania has no limits on gifts to politicians and weak controls on campaign-financing, legislators can trade favors with lobbyists and easily outspend election opponents.

To break the cycle of failure, citizens must demand action from our legislators. The Centre Region has two major players in state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, the Senate Majority Leader, and Kerry Benninghoff R-Bellefonte, the House Majority Whip. Sen. Corman is holding a town hall meeting on Wednesday in Boalsburg.

Another U.S. Census is coming in 2020. Now is the time to put a system in place for drawing fair districts for the next decade. Legislation has been introduced, and Sen. Corman may be ready to push for passage. We have heard him acknowledge that his ability to move legislation as Senate Leader is undercut by his colleagues’ fear of primary challenges from extremists.

We have laws to prevent big companies from squashing their economic competition and cheating consumers. We also need laws to prevent our legislators from squashing election competition and cheating voters. All Pennsylvanians with mainstream political views are hurt by the cycle of failure that gives away their political power to extremists on the left and right, and anyone with the money to sway elections.

Pam and Toby Short live in State College. She is a retired Penn State professor. He is a long-time community volunteer and activist. They are both members of the Centre County chapter of Fair Districts PA.
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