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OPINION

Guest Column: Voters want fair legislative boundaries

By Kathie Beans

Voting rights are much in the news as citizens react to laws limiting access to the ballot box and to mail-in voting. Our representative form of government also is assaulted every 10 years by the partisan gerrymander of state legislatures. This year Pennsylvania has a chance to change that practice, thanks to a bipartisan bill known as the Legislative and Congressional Redistricting Act (LACRA). The legislation enjoys strong bipartisan support and is popular with voters, but that is never a guarantee of success. To ensure that the bill does not get ensnared by special interests in Harrisburg, citizens need to contact their elected officials to demand that the bill gets passed in committee and receives a vote on the floor.

If passed, LACRA would introduce greater transparency into the process of drawing legislative boundaries and require more public engagement. For instance, the bill would require a user-friendly website for free public access to data, maps and all redistricting information. It also would require multiple statewide public hearings before and after redistricting plans are approved. All meetings and hearings subject to the Open Meetings Law would be livestreamed, held at convenient times for the public and accommodate multiple languages.

The law would also give individual citizens the ability to submit a redistricting plan or part of a plan that the committee would be required to review. The redistricting committee would also have to submit a written report that discusses its rationale and the process used in drawing the legislative boundaries.

Clear and measurable redistricting criteria, such as compact and contiguous federal and state districts, would also be mandated. No narrowing a district to include a highway or parking lot and then widening it out to include another area chosen to benefit the incumbent. LACRA also adds enforceable limits on splitting counties beyond what is required by population and bans dividing voting precincts.

Importantly, this law would protect racial and language minorities against discrimination in the mapping process and it would outlaw district plans designed to protect incumbents or discriminate against political parties.

The bill also promotes keeping communities of interest intact, responding to voter preferences as measured by widely accepted tests, and conforming districts to natural boundaries like rivers and mountains.

Strongly supported by the nonpartisan Fair Districts PA, this bill has 58 cosponsors from both parties in the House (House Bill 22) and 17 in the Senate (Senate Bill 222). Fair Districts has volunteers in nearly every district throughout the state who are requesting visits with their legislators this month. Over 165 meetings have already been scheduled, demonstrating strong statewide interest in reform.

Everyone who cares about good government, regardless of party registration, should contact their elected state representatives and let them know that you support HB 22 and SB 222. Voters should tell their representatives to contact their colleagues on the State Government Committee and their party leadership to say voters want reform to the redistricting process. LACRA needs to go to the floor for a vote. Let’s banish the backroom, secretive maps for good. This is a voting rights issue and we don’t want to wait another decade to attempt reform.

Kathie Beans is a board member of the Women’s Advocacy Coalition (www.bcwac.org) and a volunteer with Fair Districts PA (www.fairdistrictspa.com).