While historically, betting against the party in power on redistricting in Pa. has looked like political equivalent of betting against the Harlem Globetrotters, this year has proven that even the best laid plans can end up being found unconstitutional.
The effects of the Supreme Court’s decision in January to reject the Republican-supported redistricting plan left the GOP scrambling to regain its footing while Democrats seeing the door of opportunity swing open have been pressing their advantage ever since.
On the heels of Republican leaders losing their appeal in federal court to stop the implementation of a decidedly more Democrat-friendly 2001 version of the state’s district boundaries, PA Democrats have challenged Republican Speaker of the House Sam Smith to set the election-season wheels in motion by making the call to hold elections for the six state House seats that have remained vacant since the end of last year.
However despite the criticism, Smith has steadfastly claimed his legal imperative to await the results of the Legislative Reapportionment Committee’s second try.
If Smith caves to the pressure and sets a date for the special election of those six seats, the 2001 map becomes legally cemented into the 2012 election cycle and the GOP loses all hope of regaining their version of the redistricted boundaries this year.
At the center of this disorienting redistricting tug-of-war is the law that mandates that the speaker of the House issue a writ of election 10 days after the redistricting plan is approved. But what is the speakers responsibility when the Supreme Court denies the first redistricting plan and seems months away from approving the revision maps?
Democrats say that Supreme Courts decision to reject the redistricting plan based on the 2010 census means that the reversion to the 2001 boundaries is now the working map for 2012 and the speaker should recognize it as such.
In a joint letter to House speaker Sam Smith, Montgomery County Board of Commissioners Chairman Joshua Shapiro along with a trio of cosigners including Philadelphia’s Mayor Michael Nutter, argued that that the 250,000 Pennsylvanians still unrepresented in the legislator is a situation requiring immediate attention.
“We understand that this redistricting process is unprecedented and has caused confusion within the respective caucuses,” the letter read. “However, it is critical that the special elections be called as soon as possible and occur in conjunction with the Primary on April 24.”
The letter counts out the possibility of moving the special election to a later date then the April 24th primary, citing the additional costs to an already overtaxed state budget. As a kicker they add that counties require 60 days notice ahead of an election, giving Sam Smith until this Friday to make his announcement for the April 24th deadline
“The April 24th primary is going to go forward,” said Shapiro. “The foot-dragging that is going on right now in Harrisburg is just leading to confusion, backwards representation and potentially added costs for the taxpayers.”
Shapiro ended his term as a member of the General Assembly last November after he was elected to his current position, his constituents however remain without a replacement legislator.The former Montgomery rep. heads the list of legislator’s whose posts have yet to be filled. That list includes: Rep. Kenyatta Johnson D-Phila, Rep. Dennis O’Brien R-Phila, Rep. Doug Reichley R-Lehigh, Chelsa Wagner D-Allegheny and Rep. Jewell Williams D-Phila.
It is worth noting that according to past election results and voter registration, Democrats enjoy a slight-to-large advantage in all the unoccupied seats, except one. That one happens to be Republican Doug Reichley, formerly representing Lehigh. And even his district stats show a virtual tie with the Democrats.
The fact is that despite all the political support, these six seats will continue to remain unoccupied until the Speaker of the House grants special election. Smith is paraphrased in an article by Early Returns, laying out his view on the subject.
“Smith reiterated his view this afternoon that he had two options once those seats became vacant: either announce special elections within 10 days for a new legislator to serve out those terms, or do so within 10 days of when the new maps become final.”
In the same article by Early Returns, another possible future effect of Smith’s powers was brought up. The article revealed that unless otherwise instructed by the PA Supreme Court, Smith could call for a special election within 10 days of the courts approval of a new map after the April 24th primary. The result would be that the new map would become law and require for the primary to be re-held under the new map’s auspices.
The response to speaker of the House Sam Smith’s inaction has spurred not only Democratic leaders like Shapiro and House Minority Leader Frank Dermody to focus the public spotlight on him, but others to seek more direct routes of forcing the speaker to a decision.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Philadelphia lawyers Kevin Greenberg and Nella M. Bloom, along with nine other citizens representing six counties, “filed a lawsuit against Smith in the state Supreme Court to compel him to schedule special elections in April.” The suits have earned praise from Democratic leaders.
“Republicans are trying to disenfranchise voters by refusing to call special elections,” said Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn in a statement. “I stand with voters from across Pennsylvania who are demanding special elections and I applaud their efforts.”
Almost forgotten in the frenzy of lawsuits and letters is the Republicans original argument that the 2001 district boundaries give the Democrats the edge they need to steal some of the seats they lost in 2010, not to mention the lines are unconstitutional on the basis of the changing population over a ten year span. A fact that has some citizens as riled up as GOP legislators.
The Coalition of Latino Voters gathered in Philadelphia Monday to protest the the 2001 lines. The group says that 46 percent increase in Latino voters during that time is completely ignored by the 2001 boundaries. For voters like these who wish to see the old lines struck down, their last hope may rest with the ones who started it all.
The Legislative Reapportionment Commission is scheduled to go back unveil their new maps Wednesday, but it unclear even with a immediate action from committee, if the Supreme Court will react in time. In the meantime, conservative leaders will continue to try and pass a vote through the House in an effort to move the primary to a later date. But support for the delay is easier said then done.
In a twist, the conservative effort to move the primary election could be blocked by members of their own party. As Peter DeCoursey of Capitolwire explains, while only 99 of 110 Republicans in the house would need to vote to pass the primary move, 45 of those Republicans are running unopposed under the guidelines of the old maps and the existing calendar.
“So assuming the House GOP needs to supply the votes to move the primary, their leaders have to persuade 34 colleagues to vote for that bill, even if it means taking a risk they will then get an opponent in the primary or general election,” said DeCoursey.