In Chasing The Grail Of More Competitive Legislative Races, Consider Multi-Member House Districts

By David A. Atkinson

As state government watchers know, this is the high anxiety time in the political cycle when congressional and state legislative districts are being redrawn.  With the outcome establishing the electoral template for ten years of races, there is abundant anguished commentary about fairness, competitiveness, and community interest.  Nearly everyone has a view on who should draw the lines and what guiderails ought to be in place.  This debate is never-ending, because the possibilities of designing a mapping process deemed as better for the public interest are limitless.

Unfortunately, no matter how successful reform forces are in achieving a new mechanism, or more acceptable outcomes from existing mechanisms, there will never be a point of public contentment with the ultimate product.

The reason is apparent, if not one that goes down easy.  No matter who draws the districts, no matter how much a new map satisfies an eyeball test for elegance of shapes, it will fail to deliver political nirvana in numerous locations.  Fair districts in concept and competitive districts in actual races are entirely different things in many parts of the commonwealth.  There are just too many unpredictable variables factoring into elections: voter turnout, voter preferences, voter access and suppression tactics, relative candidate quality or appeal, weather, top of the ticket or down ticket concerns, etc.  Plus, voters refuse to neatly distribute themselves.  Ask officials of either party, and they will give examples of how districts that favored someone blew up because candidates imploded or the voters had contrary ideas.

This is by no means an argument against the efforts of those who persistently advocate changes in the mapping process.  Whether we find their recommendations agreeable or not, we should commend the importance of such concerted involvement by an increasing number of citizens.

Nonetheless, for real change to occur, something must be done to alter the landscape of elections.

One of the long-standing items on the list of reformers has been reducing the size of the General Assembly.  After multiple sessions of sitting dormant, a proposed constitutional amendment to cut the number of House districts gained some momentum a few years ago, but ultimately fell victim to disputes real and contrived.

However, that exercise can give life to future hopes.  What might an alternative look like?  There is ample time for creative thinking.  Here is one ante tossed into the pot of possibilities.

Although a single five-member panel redraws state legislative districts, it is really two exercises in one.  The two Senate members draw the Senate map, the two House members draw the House map, and the fifth member, jointly decided or court-appointed, serves as the tie-breaker on all the disputes.  Do members from one chamber reach into the deliberations of the other for their own purposes?  Sure they do, but it is bad form and generally does not go well.

How about changing the redistricting process and the size of the General Assembly in tandem to alter the distribution of political power?

The first step is to hash out how the legislative redistricting commission will be constituted for 2031.  For the sake of this argument, “Que Sera Sera.”  (That optimistically assumes the republic will withstand the worst efforts of all the political operators busily taking wrecking balls to the pillars of democracy, turning checks and balances into radioactive rubble.)

That commission to be determined will then draw one map of fifty districts, to represent the current Senate contingent.  If in the interim a constitutional amendment is approved to reduce the Senate to say forty seats, then that would be the new number.  The twist, or political curveball, is there would be no separate House map.  How can that be?  Well, for beginners, the House would, by constitutional amendment, be cut to 150 members.  On the off chance the Senate is cut, then the House contingent would be reset at triple that number.

The second step is the big leap.  Due to the smaller scale, it is currently easier to draw presumably incumbent-safe or party-safe House districts.  A way to get at this concern would be to make House districts multi-member.  Under this scenario, each party would choose two candidates per district in the primary.  Then the top three vote-getters in the general election become members of the House, with the possibility of an independent candidate grabbing one of the spots.  This construction is not novel.  It is how every non-home rule county operates.  Counties are concededly different in that commissioners combine executive and legislative responsibilities.  That does not mean the advantages of 2 and 1 party representation are not transferable to a purely legislative body.

This system would ensure each party representation in regions where their chances have historically been south of hopeless.  It would lessen the political clout of existing regional blocs in the more populated areas, and take the minority party off life support in rural parts of the state.

Granted, many commentators will be quick to suggest this sort of arrangement might happen the week after state liquor stores are abolished or schools declare they have more than enough state money.  Pennsylvania is notoriously wedded to tradition.  Our state motto could well be: “We’ve Always Done It This Way.”  Okay then.  Before reading last rites over the notion, ponder a few questions.   How are state officials doing with responding to the same arguments and the same public frustrations for more than fifty years?  How are legislators and voters enjoying those ever-sinking public approval numbers for the General Assembly?  How are legislators showing citizens meaningful contribution to bipartisan effort on major issues of community concern?  Property tax reform, anyone?

If there is a real commitment to achieving systemic change, no single silver bullet action is going to bring it about.  Reform simply does not come with hold harmless clauses written in.  If Pennsylvania truly wants to explore the possibilities for bypassing the exceptionally divisive politics holding progress hostage, it will require breaking a lot of bad habits and uprooting old assumptions.

David A. Atkinson is an Associate of the Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy, an independent, non-partisan, non-profit public policy research organization based in Hershey.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.