This past week the republican senate leaders hijacked efforts to pass sensible redistricting reform in Pennsylvania. Instead of moving bipartisan legislation forward that would have empowered the people of Pennsylvania in the redrawing of our legislative and congressional districts, a few powerful republican legislators took the opportunity to obliterate existing compromises, abandon any efforts to diligently fix the process, and institute unfair advantages to their own party.
In 2012, state republican legislators drew distorted, biased maps that disenfranchised voters and compromised our democratic process; the League of Women Voters challenged the congressional districts on the basis of political gerrymandering; subsequently the districts were deemed unconstitutional and thrown out by the state Supreme Court.
Susquehanna Valley Progress (SVP) has long supported the establishment of an independent commission made up of real people –not partisan players with partisan agendas–to draw congressional and legislative districts. SVP is a supporting organization of Fair Districts PA (FDPA), a non-partisan statewide coalition working to create a process for redistricting that is transparent, impartial, and fair. In 2017, FDPA endorsed bipartisan legislation introduced in the house and senate with strong sponsorship on both sides of the aisle.
In the house, the legislation languished in the State Government Committee, chaired by Republican Rep. Darryl Metcalfe. Metcalfe refused to move the bill or hold hearings. In April, he called a last minute committee meeting where he unveiled a plan that killed the original intent of a the fair districts approach and instead guaranteed the legislative majority would control redistricting, even stripping the governor and the Supreme Court from participating in the process. It was a callous and arrogant move that demonstrated how little Metcalfe regards the people of this state, nonetheless, fair and transparent democracy. The measure passed by party lines in the committee. Fair Districts abandoned the house bill and turned its attention to the Senate. Surely there would be reasonable republicans to work with in the other chamber.
FDPA began working with Senator Folmer, a republican from Lebanon County, and chair of the State Government Committee. Folmer, to his credit, has often taken a balanced approach to making government work better. He collaborated with FDPA to advance the bill. There were challenges along the way and certain provisions were stricken from the original language that caused a great deal of concern among those who have long supported a truly independent process.
Folmer introduced an amendment that resolved many of these issues. The amended legislation was not perfect but with improvements could have resulted in good reform. His amendment passed with a vote of 44 to 1.
Then another amendment was proposed that killed any chance of fairness and transparency. Republican Senator Aument of Lancaster, with support of his party leaders, pushed an amendment through to replace the statewide election of members of the Supreme, Commonwealth, and Superior Courts with election by judicial districts.
The amended bill passed along party lines with Senators Folmer and Rafferty courageously voting no along with every democratic senator.
Republican senators’ Constitutional amendment would give the majority party in the General Assembly a strikingly unprecedented degree of influence over who is elected to our statewide courts, including the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. This undermines the checks and balances in our state government — including those that have blocked, and in the future would block, the Republicans from tilting the rules of our democracy in their favor.
The state appellate courts are our last line of defense against consolidation of state power. When the Supreme Court determined the republican-drawn districts were unconstitutional, republican legislators chose not to right the wrong, but to instead make the process worse by undermining the courts that keep them in check. These new rules guarantee republicans will have control over the courts for decades to come.
By hijacking the efforts of so many committed volunteers, republicans in the legislature have signaled their belief that they are impervious to the anger and frustration felt by so many voters across our state.
This bill will now go to the house. Call your state representative immediately and tell them to vote no on SB22. Tell them we need to start over and find a process that is fair, transparent, and works for the people, not powerful politicians.
Nicole Faraguna is a founding member of Susquehanna Valley Progress and an active volunteer of Fair Districts PA –Susquehanna Valley.