Since January, Pennsylvania voters have seen the state’s GOP leaders defend a now invalidated congressional map through a series of questionable appeals and lawsuits, followed by threats to impeach the state supreme court justices who ordered the map redrawn.
And now this week, a Republican controlled house committee has voted along party lines, without notice or debate, to gut a popular bipartisan proposal to create an independent redistricting commission for future rounds of map-drawing.
With provisions to safeguard against extreme partisan gerrymanders, the now gutted HB 722 would have transformed Pennsylvania’s redistricting process from a cautionary tale to a model for the rest of the nation.
First introduced in April 2017 by Rep. Steve Samuelson (D-Northampton) and Rep. Eric Roe (R-Chester), HB 722 garnered record support with 38 Republicans and 72 Democrats signing on as sponsors. Its companion bill in the Pennsylvania senate has the support of 13 Democrats and 8 Republicans. Fair Districts PA, a coalition of citizen groups pushing for reform, had also lined up behind the proposal.
The strength of the original bill lay in its promotion of independence, transparency and compromise, the three key ingredients to fair redistricting.
Eleven citizen commissioners – four registered Republicans, four registered Democrats, and three independents – would be randomly selected from pools of screened candidates to draw Pennsylvania’s maps. Prospective commissioners with any direct connections to elected officials or political ambitions would be excluded. The commission’s work would be guided by clear, legitimate criteria and the process would include numerous opportunities for public input. Ultimately, a map would only be enacted once a proposal received the support of seven commissioners, including at least one from each caucus.
But, after letting HB 722 fester without a committee hearing for over a year, Republican leaders held a short hearing on March 30. Then on April 11, they convened for a second committee meeting, where Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R -Cranberry Township) offered a surprise substitute amendment. Instead of eleven independent commissioners buffered from political interests, the new version of HB 722 would give responsibility for drawing maps to six handpicked politicians. And rather than requiring partisan balance, this drastic change allows for a 4–2 skew if, as is currently the case, one party controls both the state house and senate. The amendment would also cut the governor, currently a Democrat, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court out of the process entirely.
This is not how democracy is supposed to work. The process used by Rep. Metcalfe and his Republican colleagues lays bare the brazen nature of this partisan power grab. The public received no notice of the committee’s intention to amend HB 722. Rep. Metcalfe did not release the text of the amendment. The committee took no public testimony. Dissenting lawmakers did not get a chance to debate the changes.
If the revised HB 722 passes, Pennsylvania Republicans, however, may soon regret these unilateral changes. Given the current wave election environment, there is a distinct possibility that Democrats, rather than Republicans, take control of the redistricting process in 2021. And, if the tables do indeed turn, it may be Pennsylvania Republicans calling for partisan balance and procedural fairness.