Top advocate for fair congressional districts visits Erie ahead - Erie News Now | WICU & WSEE in Erie, PA

Top advocate for fair congressional districts visits Erie ahead of Pa. lawmakers deadline

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ERIE, Pa. -

Carol Kuniholm chairs the non-partisan group Fair Districts PA and works with the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters. That's the group that drafted one of nearly 1,000 maps she says have been submitted for review to replace a current map the Pa. Supreme Court Justices say heavily favors Republicans and was drawn on party lines.

It's also the version one source tells Erie News Now that's "being seriously considered" ahead of Friday's court-ordered deadline to replace the existing map.

"Most of them come down to a 9-9 (Democratic U.S. Representatives to Republican U.S. Representatives) split," Kuniholm said regarding the maps that were submitted. She said an 'expert witness' in the League's lawsuit, which brought forth the ongoing redistricting process, produced roughly 1,000 computer-generated maps. Half of which, she said, were drawn with no attention to where incumbents lived and the other half were drawn to keep incumbents in their districts. Both included basic guidelines that  would "respect traditional redistricting criteria.

Right now, the Republicans have 13 of the 18 Congressional seats despite Democrats having over 800,000 more voters in Pennsylvania than Republicans do.

"Those maps show that you can draw very fair maps with a computer without any attention to trying to make sure incumbents stay in power and there would a more even mix between the parties," Kuniholm said.

With that deadline looming, some local lawmakers are in Erie -- including Republicans, State Rep. Curt Sonney and State Sen. Dan Laughlin -- to hear Kuniholm's lecture on gerrymandering at the Jefferson Educational Society. Joining her: Penn State Behrend political science professor Robert Speel, Ph. D.

Speel is unsure exactly how this process will impact the Erie area.

"If we have two representatives in Washington, it might give us more clout," Speel said of the current setup. "But none of these representatives are from the Erie area."

Congressman Mike Kelly, who represents Pennsylvania's 3rd Congressional District which covers the City of Erie, lives in Butler County. Congressman Glenn Thompson, who covers the 5th Congressional District which spans Erie and Warren counties, resides in Howard Twp., Centre County.

Fair Districts PA is also working to create an eleven-member independent, impartial citizens review commission for the next time redistricting happens after the 2020 Census.

"When lines are drawn to keep incumbents in office, it shuts everybody out," Kuniholm said. "It allows those incumbents to completely ignore their constituents."

The new map virtually boxes out Kelly from the 3rd District. Butler, Pa. would be placed in the 12th Congressional District. U.S. Representatives legally can represent districts in which they don't reside, something Kelly would neither confirm nor deny he would do should the proposed map be finalized.

"I think we ought to wait and see what the actual district is going to look like," Kelly said in a telephone interview.

Erie County would not be included in Thompson's district. He says it's a politically motivated move led by Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, who's up for re-election in 2018. The proposed map obtained by Erie News Now is called the "Stack Illustrative Congressional Map."

"He wants to be a hero for the Democrats, who quite frankly want to gerrymander out Republican members," Thompson said in a separate telephone interview.

A final version of the new map could be released some time Friday, but that's doubtful, Kuniholm said. She added that top GOP and Democratic lawmakers would likely submit a version to Gov. Wolf without voting on it to stay within that Supreme Court mandated timeline.

Wolf has to finalize a version by Feb. 15. Otherwise, Pa. Supreme Court Justices said they will redraw the map themselves.

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