Gut and replacement of SB222

On June 22, the Senate State Government Committee met briefly to vote on three bills, in a meeting announced with less than 24 hours notice. Senate Bill 222 was one of those bills.

Only one amendment was offered, Senator Argall’s own, removing most of SB 222, including all mention of legislative districts.

Senator Katie Muth asked why a bill with 25 co-sponsors would not be given a vote in its entirety, and pointed out that LACRA was discussed in over 200 constituent meetings, while the proposed amendment had not been read or discussed by PA voters. There was no response to her comments. The amendment was passed on party lines, then the bill itself was passed out of committee. The entire meeting took 23 minutes. Discussion and vote on SB 222 took less than 10.

LACRA was the product of dozens of meetings with legislators from 2015 through early 2020, reviewed and improved in conversation with redistricting experts and non-partisan mappers with the League of Women Voters of the United States, Common Cause US, the Campaign Legal Center and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. Citizens across Pennsylvania have read and studied the bill and have created maps using the prioritized criteria.

Committee members had less than 24 hours to review his amendment, and no advance notice, so no opportunity to have their own amendments ready. There was no time for response from expert mappers or redistricting experts, and no chance of public input.

Initial response from mapping experts is that the criteria in the current bill would now give a consistent advantage to Republicans. John Nagle, professor emeritus of physics and biological sciences at Carnegie Mellon University and long-time student of Pennsylvania gerrymandering and redistricting, believes: “As long as non-splitting is a tier one criterion, one can’t draw a fair map in PA.” Other mappers, including several involved in Draw the Lines competitions, have used Argall criteria to draw sample maps and conclude the new criteria, as written, can enable districts drawn to favor incumbents and does little to prevent manipulation of outcomes for partisan favor.

Senator Argall has said repeatedly “Details matter.” We agree. Legislators, mappers and PA citizens have had over a year to discuss, weigh, review and test details provided in the Legislative and Congressional Redistricting bills (SB222/HB22). The Argall amendment was produced with less than 24 hours notice before a vote. We can only assume that GOP mapping experts have enjoyed drawing sample maps and agree that those details will work to their advantage. We have yet to hear an impartial expert agree that the criteria will work to the advantage of PA voters.

On the whole we are disappointed in the process and Senator Argall. Senator Argall continues to say we can’t expect to get the full loaf. We are well beyond the full loaf. Bills to create an independent citizen redistricting commission were stalled, blocked, amended beyond recognition, gutted and buried across the past three sessions. LACRA was an attempt to provide a compromise remedy. Even that compromise remedy has now been gutted.

The original SB 222 was a few slices of what voters want - strict criteria, transparency, accountability and a lot of public input. Legislators want a role in the process; SB 222 kept that. Voters want strict criteria, transparency, accountability and a lot of public input.

Senator Argall has proposed crumbs. It is a slap in the face to voters who have been polite, persistent and knowledgeable for 5 years, and some who have been at this for three decades.

We are reminded, once again, that the Pennsylvania legislature has no best practices in place for collaborative policy making and provides no avenue for citizens to enjoy their most basic constitutional right to alter and reform their government.

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