It happens every 10 years, but what do we really know about legislative redistricting and how it affects us?



It happens every 10 years, but what do we really know about legislative redistricting and how it affects us?

The Constitutions of both the United States and Pennsylvania require the legislative districts for the state and federal Houses of Representatives and Senates be redrawn each decade following the federal census.

The reason for this, in theory, is to keep legislative districts in line with the voters within them so each citizen's vote carries the same weight in the ballot box.

In practice, however, the process is often used as a political tool by the party in power to give them an electoral advantage over the coming decade by drawing the lines to include voters generally favorable to them or disclude those who are not, a practice known as “gerrymandering.”

This can, and often does, produce effects quite the opposite of the process’ stated purpose.

Pennsylvania is currently in the middle of this decennial process, with the state’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission unveiling their preliminary district map Monday.

Made up of five members, the Reapportionment Commission is headed by Stephen J. McEwen Jr., Pa. Superior Court President Judge Emeritus, appointed — as most Commission chairs are — by the Pa. Supreme Court to decide split decisions of the Commission since the two major parties were unable to elect a leader themselves.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, Minority Leader Jay Costa, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai and Minority Leader Frank Dermody round out the Commission.

Under Article 2, section 16 of the Pa. Constitution, the Commonwealth is to be divided into 50 senatorial and 203 representative districts.

Where the boundaries of those districts are can mean the political life or death of politicians.

Article 2, Section 17 of the Pennsylvania Constitution sets forth the rules governing the process, including:

• No later than 90 days after either the commission has been duly certified or the population data for the Commonwealth as determined by the Federal decennial census are available, whichever is later, the commission shall file a preliminary reapportionment plan with the elections officer of the Commonwealth. (Note: This is the step completed Monday)

• The commission shall have 30 days after filing the preliminary plan to make corrections in the plan.

• Any person aggrieved by the preliminary plan shall have the same 30-day period to file exceptions with the commission in which case the commission shall have 30 days after the date the exceptions were filed to prepare and file with the elections officer a revised reapportionment plan.

• Any aggrieved person may file an appeal from the final plan directly to the Supreme Court within 30 days after the filing.
The preliminary redistricting map is available at www.redistricting.state.pa.us.
 
Magisterial Redistricting  

Similarly, the Pa. Supreme Court Monday released its official rules for the redrawing of magisterial court boundaries across the state.

Administered by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) and carried out by the county courts, Judicial redistricting — also referred to as re-establishment — also takes place every 10 years to determine how to allocate state court system resources, which have not been faring well in recent years.

The review covers the number and boundaries of each of the state’s 539 current magisterial districts. According to the AOPC, that number is expected to drop by roughly 10 percent when the review is complete.

“This comprehensive analysis helps ensure that the configuration of each magisterial district is appropriate to serve its residents over the next decade,” Chief Justice of Pennsylvania Ronald D. Castille said of the process.  

“Our goal is to arrive at a statewide plan — conducted in a balanced way — so we can effectively function within our limits,” the chief justice added.

Each county’s president judge is required to submit a draft re-establishment plan to the AOPC for preliminary review by spring 2012. The county plans can become effective immediately, or up to six years into the future, when a sitting judge’s term expires or when a judge reaches mandatory retirement age.  Proposals are expected to be made available for public comment under a process to be outlined by each county.  

Final proposals will be presented to the Supreme Court for review and approval on a “rolling” basis or in phases over a period of time. The process is expected to be completed, and final orders issued, sometime in fall 2012.