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Researchers say Pennsylvania's electoral system among worst in country

| Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016, 6:18 p.m.
Tribune-Review
Twenty electors gathered at the Capitol in Harrisburg on Monday, Dec. 19, 2016, to cast their votes for President-elect Donald Trump.
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Electors ratify their cast election ballots in the House of Representatives chamber within the Pennsylvania Capitol Building on Monday, Dec. 19, 2016, in Harrisburg, Pa.

Pennsylvania's electoral system has as much integrity as systems in Cuba, Bulgaria and Hungary, according to a recent analysis.

The Electoral Integrity Project, affiliated with Harvard University and the University of Sydney in Australia, evaluated states' electoral systems based on interviews with more than 700 political scientists. Researchers scored states on the perceived integrity of 11 aspects of the electoral process, from how congressional and legislative districts are drawn to how votes are cast and counted.

Pennsylvania's overall score of 56 out of 100 tied for fifth-worst among U.S. states, ahead of only Oklahoma, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Arizona.

It also tied the scores of Cuba, Bulgaria and Hungary in the Electoral Integrity Project's global research, which used the same criteria.

“What jumps out (with Pennsylvania's results) is gerrymandering,” said Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris, referring to the state's score of 11 out of 100 for the way it draws legislative and congressional district boundaries. Only Wisconsin and North Carolina scored worse.

Legislators redraw congressional, state Senate and state House districts once every 10 years.

Legislative redistricting is done by a five-person panel that includes the majority and minority leaders of the Senate and House, along with a fifth person appointed by the four leaders. Critics argue it gives legislative leaders too much clout over rank-and-file members.

“It's one of the factors that keeps rank-and-file legislators in line with what leadership wants them to do. They are always mindful of the possibility of retaliation,” said Bob Warner, spokesman for the Pennsylvania chapter of the government watchdog group Common Cause.

Warner said rank-and-file members who step out of line could see their districts redrawn to make it more difficult for them to win re-election.

Congressional redistricting proposals must be approved by the full Senate and House and signed by the governor. In Pennsylvania's past two redistricting processes, Republicans controlled the Senate, House and governor's mansion — effectively giving the GOP control over the drawing of congressional districts. The next redistricting will occur after the 2020 Census.

Norris said many districts are gerrymandered to favor one party or another in such a way that incumbents become virtually unbeatable, often resulting in less competition. That makes elected officials less accountable and less responsive to constituents and contributes to gridlock in Washington, she said.

In November, all but two of Pennsylvania's 18 congressional races were decided by 10 percentage points or more. Three incumbents had no opponents, including U.S. Reps. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, and Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair.

Fair Districts PA, a group led by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, is working to place the redistricting process in the hands of an independent commission. The state constitution would have to be amended to change the process, requiring lawmakers to pass related bills in two consecutive legislative sessions and voters to support such a change through a public referendum.

A related effort stalled during the past legislative session.

“It's a long shot, but there is much more attention being focused on the problem than there was 10 years ago,” Warner said, noting that state Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Lehigh Valley, plans to introduce a redistricting reform bill in January. A sponsor has yet to be lined up in the state House.

Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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