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News and Op/Ed

Special Dossier: Political Reform

The process by which politicians run for office, and then legislate once elected directly affects the contents of legislation which we they do or do not consider. Redistricting reform, lobbyist disclosure, campaign finance reform and voting procedures are rarely covered by the press, but they are all actively undermining the political process. We at the Philadelphia Jewish Voice are proud to present this special dossier on political reform.

Pennsylvania's "creatively drawn" 172nd House District and 6th U.S. Congressional District.

Making Elections Count

Voters no longer choose their politicians; instead, politicians choose their voters when they draw the district lines. I have been leading the fight to take the politics out of redistricting.

Redistricting has become a tool used by legislative leaders to ensure that elections are never competitive. As you know, the constitution requires that political boundaries are redrawn every 10 years to reflect population shifts. In recent years, politicians of both parties have become increasingly blatant about drawing these lines to ensure that there are as few genuinely competitive districts as possible. As a result, 95 percent of us live in districts where our vote essentially does not count because those who drew the lines have already decided which party will win.

Though gerrymandering has been a growing problem for centuries, new technology has made it increasingly effective. Let me explain how this works. Say there are two adjacent legislative districts, both of which typically divide their vote evenly between the Democratic and Republican parties. When the next redistricting comes around, the party leadership of both parties will make a deal to swap precincts so that instead of two 50-50 districts, the new map will have one district that is 70-30 Republican and the other that is 70-30 Democratic. People still walk to the polls on election day, but everyone knows who will win before the first vote is counted.

Pennsylvania House Bill 1116 would take the power to draw the map away from the legislature and ban any consideration of political advantage in redrawing the lines. A new, multipartisan commission would be created, which would have to conduct all of its deliberations in public. This bill will eliminate the back-room deals that draw the lines now. 

Iowa has actually passed similar reform. As a result, four out of five of Iowa's congressional districts are competitive. That is more competitive districts than there are in Pennsylvania, New York and California combined. That state's legislative races are similarly competitive. 

The powers that be in both parties oppose this bill because it takes power out of their hands. The only way that reform will ever happen is if there is a public outcry demanding it.

The author Pennsylvania State Representative Daylin Leach (D-149) has introduced comprehensive redistricting reform legislation, which would take the politics out of the line drawing. As a result of House Bill 1116, a bipartisan group of U.S. Congressmen has targeted Pennsylvania as one of six states to push for reform, and has invited him to discuss the substance and strategy of reform at the Redistricting Conference in Utah.

U.S. congressional districts covering Travis County, Texas (outlined in red) in 2002, left, and 2004, right. In 2003, Republicans in the Texas legislature redistricted the state, diluting the voting power of the heavily Democratic county by parceling its residents out to more Republican districts.
U.S. Congressional districts covering Travis County, Texas (outlined in red) in 2002, left, and 2004, right. In 2003, Republicans in the Texas legislature redistricted the state, diluting the voting power of the heavily Democratic county by parceling its residents out to more Republican districts.
Can The Majority Take All

The political redistricting process in Texas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere .

In 2003, embattled ex-Majority Leader Tom Delay orchestrated an egregious redistricting effort in Texas. The result of the unnecessary mid-decade redistricting was the ouster of five Democratic incumbents from Congress. 

The U.S. Supreme Court heard the Texas gerrymander case on March 1, and JSPAN presented the issues and arguments on the evening of March 7, 2006. After a welcome by JSPAN Vice President Kenneth Myers and opening comments from JSPAN President Jeffrey Pasek, three expert speakers addressed the issue of political gerrymandering in the redistricting process in Texas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

Sam Hirsch, a partner at the Washington Office of Jenner & Block LLP, who participated in briefing the Texas case and one of the prior Pennsylvania cases as well, explained the history of the Texas redistricting and the issues presented. The 2000 census gave Texas entitlement to two additional seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, but a politically divided state government could not agree on a redistricting map. The federal district court therefore determined the map, which was reviewed and affirmed on appeal. But in the 2002 election, the Republicans gathered control of the Texas House and Senate and the Governorship. In 2003 they replaced the approved redistricting with their own new plan.

The new Republican map, according to Hirsch, eliminated six out of seven "competitive" Texas seats (e.g. seats that could be won by candidates from either party, as opposed to "safe" seats) in the U.S. House of Representatives. The opponents also claim that the redistricting eliminated a district that a Latino would be likely to win and a district that an African-American would be likely to win (so-called "majority-minority districts"). In order to sap Latino voting strength, the redistricting created one election district depicted above fully 300 miles long, north-to-south, and at points, only 10 miles wide, to connect two unrelated Latino communities. 

Judicial challenges were filed which have now been heard in the Supreme Court. Primary themes are that the loss of minority representation under the redistricting violates the Voting Rights Act. Other appellants argue that the existing districts were fully legal, and the mid-course redistricting had solely the partisan political goal of depriving voters of one party of equal protection of the laws, guaranteed in the Constitution.

Following the 2000 census, Pennsylvania experienced equally strange redistricting of both federal and state legislative districts. Lou Freimiller, Chief of Staff for state Representative Mike Gerber, spoke about the effects in Montgomery County, which has been growing more Democratic over the past few years. State-wide, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 500,000 voters. However, Republicans control both houses of the state legislature, as well as the Pennsylvania delegation to Congress. To counter Democratic growth in Montgomery County, the Republicans divided it into six Congressional districts. The redistricting process cut Upper Dublin into four state Representative districts. These districts extend across several townships, adding confusion to the electoral and representative processes.

Thomas D. Rees, a partner at High Swartz LLP in Norristown, represented local governments in appeals from redistricting efforts after both the 1990 and 2000 census. Lower Merion had a large enough population to elect one state representative. Instead the redistricting split the Township and combined it with other areas with different populations and needs. Still, the courts did not disturb the result.

Several ideas were presented by the speakers to address the gerrymandering issue. Involving citizens who are not office holders in the process can help reduce the political influence. Iowa has adopted a process that seeks to eliminate all elected officials from drawing the map. Some specific goals (such as compact, contiguous districts that follow municipal boundaries to the extent practical, and of course, the mandatory "one man one vote" standard) can help. Each of these must be tempered, however, in order to avoid unintentionally diluting minority voting power. 

The effects of political gerrymandering on our democratic system have hit home as well. Only 10% of State House seats are considered competitive. Thus, Gerrymandering deprives large numbers of voters of a voice in choosing their leaders, and undermines a root principle of democracy. On the national level, only 10 Congressional elections were decided by fewer than five percentage points.

Republished courtesy of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network

Jack Abramoff 
Taking Money Out Of Politics

Campaign finance reform and lobbyist disclosure reform go hand in hand in restoring public trust.

Campaign finance reform

Pennsylvania is one of five states that does not set limits on individual political contributions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That means that while you can only give $2,100 to a candidate running for president of the United States, you could give $100,000 or more to a state legislative or gubernatorial candidate.

This unlimited giving is a huge problem. Interests that give huge contributions have disproportionate influence and access. However, limits on the amount of giving solve only part of the problem. We need to eliminate money from politics entirely through public financing of campaigns.

I spent a good deal of time over the past year studying the legislative process with legislators from all over the country. I met representatives and senators from other states, like Maine for example, which do not allow politicians to accept money from anyone. They receive a certain amount each cycle for their campaigns and some free TV time and can spend no more. And while this does cost the taxpayers some money, they save many times that amount in special interest favors that never become law.

Lobbyist Disclosure.

New efforts already are underway pressing for quick passage of effective lobbyist disclosure and regulation for Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is currently the only state without a law requiring lobbyists to report how much they spend to influence public policy. Without expenditure transparency, the public's trust in the legislature is eroded. The public has the right to know who is trying to influence the state's legislature. A proposal under consideration requires any lobbyist or client that the lobbyist represents to report gifts and expenses which total over $2,500 annually to the State Ethics Committee or the Department of State where they will be made public.

Pennsylvania Senate maintains a rule requiring lobbyists to register, but there currently is no mandatory disclosure in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives or executive branch. It is time that we in the House join the Senate and go further, to restore transparency in government.

Legislation has also been introduced that would prohibit former members of the General Assembly and key legislative staff officers from lobbying the legislature for at least two years after they leave office.

We should end the practice, known as "revolving door lobbying," because former members of the General Assembly who immediately begin to lobby their former friends and colleagues on behalf of special interests could be perceived as having undue access and influence with legislators.

Current state law prohibits legislators and high-ranking staff from lobbying the legislature for one year after they leave office. The new bill would ensure former lawmakers are out of office for at least one entire two-year legislative session before they can lobby former colleagues. This bill is an important step toward reducing the appearance of impropriety in the way we do business.

Pennsylvania State Representative Daylin Leach (D-149)

Pennsylvania General Assembly.
Automatic Calendar

Every bill should be considered and voted on

Some states have a procedural mechanism called an "automatic calendar" that guarantees every bill is considered and voted on. 

In Pennsylvania, votes are scheduled at the whim of legislative leaders. Voting schedules can be determined by whether they agree with a proposal or even whether they like a given legislator.

Implementing an automatic calendar would allow the minority party to have its ideas and policy initiatives considered. Members would be held more accountable for the bills they introduced, and since the proposal would be guaranteed a vote, a calendar may result in better-drafted and reasoned legislation.

Because an automatic calendar forces a vote on all legislation, the General Assembly would deal with real issues at hand and fewer mundane issues that dominate the floor at times, like naming the official state cookie. I strongly support a rule change that would institute an automatic calendar in Pennsylvania and bring every issue to a vote.

Pennsylvania State Representative Daylin Leach (D-149)

Currently legislators let popular bills such as the Handgun Trafficking Reduction Act languish in committee rather than take an unpopular stand on issues important to votes. By forcing legislation to the floor, voters can hold legislators more accountable for their actions.

Previous Special Dossiers