Pennsylvania redistricting effort gets conservative think tank support

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    Southeastern Pennsylvania Congressional districts take some strange shapes. A coalition wants to change they way they're drawn.

    Southeastern Pennsylvania Congressional districts take some strange shapes. A coalition wants to change they way they're drawn.

    A new coalition has formed to push for changes in the way Pennsylvania draws legislative boundaries — and among those advocating the change is a leading free-market, limited government think tank.

    In Pennsylvania, the Republican-controlled Legislature draws congressional boundaries, and Democrats say their gerrymandering is why the GOP controls 13 of the state’s 18 congressional seats. The new coalition, Fair Districts Pa wants to amend the state constitution so that a nonpartisan commission would draw the boundaries for Congress and the Legislature. (State House and Senate boundaries are now drawn by a five-member commission, four of whom are legislative caucus leaders.)

    The coalition includes many groups typically labelled progressive, such as Common Cause Pennsylvania and the Green Party of Pennsylvania. Also joined in the effort is the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank.

    Coalition co-chair Carol Kuniholm of the League of Women Voters thinks that’s a plus.

    “We are making a very strong case that this is a bipartisan issue, and I think having membership in our coalition from different sides of the spectrum makes that point,” Kuniholm said.

    Why would the Commonwealth Foundation support a move that might undermine Republican electoral prospects?

    Vice president for policy Nathan Benefield told me the foundation has supported other good government reforms in the past, including increased access to public records, term limits, and changes to make the passage of legislation more transparent.

    Benefield said the foundation believes a fairly elected citizen legislature will support its policy goals.

    “You see lower taxes, better spending, better policies in states that have more citizen legislatures than those with full-time professional legislatures, lawmakers who have been able to gerrymander districts,” Benefield said.

    Could it happen?

    The coalition’s hope is to amend the state Constitution in time for the next congressional redistricting, after the 2020 census. A constitutional change requires passage in two successive sessions of the legislature, and approval by voters in a referendum.

    There are bills with bipartisan sponsorship in the legislature enacting the change, though Kunniholm acknowledges that legislative leaders are leery.

    “We’re often fighting uphill with these things, because we’re asking people to give up some of their power,” said the other co-chair of the coalition, Barry Kauffman of Common Cause Pennsylvania.

    But Kauffman said voters are getting the idea that gerrymandered districts are protecting incumbents, driving the parties to ideological extremes and contributing to partisan gridlock in Congress and the Legislature.

    Coalition leaders hope public pressure will lead to favorable action this summer.

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