More constitutional amendments we need to oppose

On May 25th, the Senate State Government Committee voted five bills out of committee in less than 14 minutes.

Three of the bills would amend the PA Constitution. Two would impact the legislative redistricting process in ways designed to signal dissatisfaction with the 2022 mapping process.

Some states require joint public hearings, with expert testimony and opportunities for public comment, before a vote on any state constitutional amendment. Apparently the PA legislature is now rushing amendments through without any hint of deliberation or discussion of unintended consequences. There’s plenty of competition for all-time low in the Pennsylvania legislative process, but this is a strong contender. You can watch the full meeting here.

Senate Bill 1182, introduced by Committee Chair Dave Argall on April 8, would change the way the chair of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC) is selected if the four majority leaders fail to agree on a neutral candidate. The Supreme Court would be required to “select the chairman, at random, from the current active senior judges of all appellate courts.”

In his hurried explanation of the bill, Senator Argall offered no data regarding the possible number of eligible senior judges. He also made no mention of the complex, time-consuming work required in overseeing the redistricting process well. Clearly no one who voted had discussed the task with past commission chairs, or surveyed current senior judges to see if any would be willing or able to complete such a task if chosen.

If the proposed amendment had been in effect for 2021, it would have prevented the Supreme Court from appointing Mark Nordenberg, the former Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh. Chancellor Nordenberg’s appointment was universally praised at the time and he served with distinction under trying circumstances. By every impartial assessment, the final maps were the most fair in decades. Argall’s amendment continues the partisan push-back against a more fair redistricting.

SB 1209 is another amendment clearly drafted in response to the LRC’s decision to end the practice of prison gerrymandering. The bill would require that inmates of state correctional institutions be counted as residents of the district where the prison is located rather than the place they call home and where they are likely to return. The LRC vote to address the issue was accompanied by legal briefs from each legislative leader, as well as from the commission’s counsel. The LRC’s voting meeting on the issue followed multiple two-hour meetings with input from organizations like Fair Districts PA and Common Cause PA, impacted citizens, and several scholars who studied the issue in depth. The final voting meeting included discussion of legal considerations submitted by each commissioner. That final vote was the culmination of a month-long process of deliberation. You can see the meeting video, minutes and transcript here.

The Senate committee vote, in contrast, offered no discussion of legal implications, no testimony or data, no public input. Senator Street referenced the deliberation by the LRC in addressing the issue, but the committee hurried on with a party line vote. Total time on the bill, including summary and vote: just over six minutes.

Last year FDPA and partners worked hard to call attention to this issue with six regional End Prison Gerrymandering virtual forums, with extensive research and active advocacy in the months leading up to the 2021 redistricting. We will continue to work in opposition to Senator Argall’s efforts to enshrine prison gerrymandering in the PA Constitution.

These bills join Senator Argall’s previous foray into hasty, ill-considered redistricting amendments. A year ago he led his committee in gutting Senator Lisa Boscola’s SB 222, the FDPA supported Legislative and Congressional Redistricting Act (LACRA).

Any of these bills could be brought to a Senate vote, with little notice, in the days before the Senate summer recess. If you are as outraged as we are by Senator Argall’s cavalier misuse of the legislative process, please contact your senator to express your concern.

Take action by contacting your Senator. Use this script as guidance to create your own talking points:

My name is (your name). I am calling from (your municipality)

I am calling to urge Senator **** to vote against SB 1209 and SB 1182.

Both of these partisan bills are constitutional amendments that will make the redistricting process worse. Both were passed in committee with only a day’s notice and after only minutes of discussion.

SB 1209 would enshrine the unfair practice of prison gerrymandering into the state constitution. Prison Gerrymandering gives voters in prison districts an unfair legislative advantage while voters in minority and urban areas are deprived of representation. Prisoners are forbidden to vote where they are incarcerated, so why should they be counted there?

SB 1182 would deprive the Supreme Court of choosing the most qualified candidate to be LRC chair by forcing a random selection from a pool of senior judges (who may or may not be interested in the position!).

Majority Party leaders keep telling us that “voters should choose.” Voters should have the opportunity to vote on bipartisan constitutional amendments that have been discussed in committee with hearings, public input and expert testimony. Neither of these partisan bills fit that description.

Vote NO on both SB 1209 and SB 1182. Thank you.

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