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Upset over proposed House map, GOP seeks to overhaul redistricting panel

Closeup or colorful wooden pieces carved to fit into each other like puzzle pieces
Wooden cutouts representing possible congressional districts in Pennsylvania (Amanda Berg for Spotlight PA)

HARRISBURG — Faced with a proposed new state House map that would diminish their power, GOP lawmakers are pushing to overhaul the process to sideline the current redistricting panel and put the ultimate power in the hands of the legislature.

The proposal is the latest in a series of constitutional amendments being pushed by Pennsylvania Republicans as a way to take issues directly to the public, circumventing the veto power of the governor’s office. The process, however, is a lengthy one.

The redistricting overhaul, introduced by Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), would eliminate the five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission, composed of the top legislative leader from each party in both chambers as well as a nonpartisan chair who is typically selected by the state Supreme Court.

Grove has accused the redistricting panel of creating a proposed House map that unfairly benefits Democrats.

While the preliminary map has the potential to significantly shift the balance of power in the chamber, redistricting advocates say that’s because it unwinds decades of gerrymandering in favor of the GOP. Nonpartisan analysis of the map shows it still favors Republicans.

The change, advanced Monday by the House State Government Committee along party lines, would empower the legislative branch and ensure greater public input, Grove said during the meeting. Democrats and nonpartisan good-government groups, meanwhile, decried the proposal as an attempted power grab that does nothing to remove lawmaker influence from the process.

The resolution would create an 11-person commission composed of eight registered voters selected by caucus leaders as well as a former judge from Commonwealth Court and two members selected by county governments. A person would be disqualified from membership if they or their spouse has held public office, been a registered lobbyist, or been a political candidate during the preceding five years.

The final decision over the maps would be left to the General Assembly.

“The backup mechanism where the legislature regains control is quite worrying,” said Adam Podowitz-Thomas of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, an organization that conducts nonpartisan analyses of district maps across the country. “We know, based on our analysis across the country, that when legislatures have control of their own redistricting, they tend to draw partisan gerrymanders.”

He added, “To me, [this] seems like a pretty significant backtracking on the process that we have in Pennsylvania.”

Under the changes, the citizens’ commission would have 60 days to draw legislative maps, a decrease from the 90 days afforded to the current redistricting panel. After at least two-thirds of the panel’s members approve the maps, they would be sent to their respective chambers for consideration.

If a map does not earn approval in the House or Senate, it is sent back to the commission, which then has another 21 days to amend it and return it for reconsideration. Should the House or Senate fail to adopt its map after the second round of revisions, the chamber would take over the drawing, a significant shift from the current arrangement, which sends the process to the state Supreme Court.

The maps would pass through the legislative process as a simple resolution, which does not require the approval of the governor or the other chamber.

Rep. Scott Conklin (D., Centre) criticized what he called a lack of transparency and public involvement when forwarding “one of the most drastic overhaulings of the districting plan” in Pennsylvania.

“What we’re looking at here is another transparency plan that is not really transparent,” Conklin said during the meeting. “This is something that affects over 12 million people in this state. And I believe that we shouldn’t be doing it at 8 a.m. in the morning, that we should actually have hearings on it, actually talk about it before we proceed any further.”

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