Forum panel discusses boundaries


Matt Churella

State Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-71st, answers audience questions at a Feb. 6 forum in the John P. Murtha Center for Public Service.

Matt Churella, News Editor

While Pennsylvania General Assembly members worked in Harrisburg to create new state congressional district boundaries by last Friday, at least 45 people attended a Feb. 6 congressional redistricting forum held in the John P. Murtha Center for Public Service.

The forum, moderated by Social Science Division Chair Ray Wrabley, included a panel with Pennsylvania Supreme Court case plaintiff Bill Marx, Cohen & Grigsby law firm associate Alex Lacey and state Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-71st.

Dave Popp of an organization called Fair District PA in Bedford County also was on the panel.

The United States Constitution states that the number of representatives each state receives must be proportional to their percentage of the country’s population, according to Popp.

“In order to do that, the Constitution mandates a census every 10 years, and so, after each census, there’s a reapportioning that’s done to redo how many congressional districts each state can get,” Popp said.

“Every state determines their own rules for how they draw their district lines. In Pennsylvania, congressional redistricting is done as a bill in the state legislature; it’s passed by the House and Senate and it’s signed by the Governor.”

Popp mentioned that Cambria County is split into two congressional districts—the northern part is in the 9th District and the southern part is in the 12th District.

“We’re getting these congressional districts that make it increasingly hard for local governments to deal with one Congress person,” Popp said.

Popp said when congressional districts were redrawn in 2010, a district consisted of about 645,000 people.

He said Montgomery County, which is part of the 7th District, has a population of about 800,000 people, more than enough to be its own congressional district.

Montgomery County contains five congressional districts—2nd, 6th, 7th, 8th and the 13th Districts.

Popp said a Montgomery County resident told him he did not know who his represenative was.

“Can you imagine the media market at election time? You’re seeing all the commercials but you don’t know who your congress person you’re voting for,” Popp said.

Popp said that although Montgomery County has more Democratic majority, their congressional representation is Republican because only two of the five districts have a Democrat representative.

“When you crack the electorate, what you do is you take a concentration and you disperse it among other districts who have higher concentrations of the other party. Therefore, you dilute the party power that you’re trying to put at a disadvantage.”

Popp said that computer science is one reason why Pennsylvania is one of the most gerrymandered states in the country.

“The big data tells the people who are drawing the maps a lot about who the voters are in those districts. So, with the big data combined with mapping software, you can almost pick your voters so that you can get an outcome that you want,” Popp said.

Bill Marx said he was asked to be involved in the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania’s case through his affiliation with Fair Districts PA as a presenter.

“The reason I got involved and went into a Commonwealth court is that this is unfair,” Marx said.

Marx, who served in the Marine Corps and now in the Army Reserves, said he swore an oath to protect the United States against all enemies—both foreign and domestic.

“To me, the biggest domestic threat we have is a lack of (voter) participation.

“It’s a danger when you start sitting back and letting other people make decisions for you,” Marx said.

Marx told students to get passionate about politics and to discuss it with others.

“Avoiding politics and avoiding talking about this stuff leads to weak minds. And politicians want people with weak minds. They want people who don’t pay attention because then they can do whatever they want.”

His attorney, Alex Lacey, said there are many compelling arguments against gerrymandering for political and moral reasons.

Lacey said the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s seven justices heard their oral argument Jan. 17.

“Four days later, we got an order from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that said, ‘This is unconstitutional, and it’s unconstitutional under the Pennsylvania Constitution.’”

The justices ruled that the congressional district map was unconstitutional by a 4-3 decision.

Barbin said Pennsylvania General Assembly members would have had an advantage in not passing a map by last Friday.

“Then you can blame the Supreme Court and you could say it’s political,” Barbin said.

A student asked Barbin how advanced a new map would need to be to get approval.

“It has to be enough better that the (Pennsylvania Supreme) Court says it’s better. It’s not really good now, so it’s not a high standard.”

Geography professor William Kory said all but one of his Political Geography students attended the forum.

“The topic was timely since we are discussing local politics in class, including (Pennsylvania)’s 18 congressional districts,” Kory said.

Wrabley said he thought the forum’s turnout was good, given the poor weather conditions.

“I was especially glad to see so many students attend.”

Wrabley said he has mixed feelings about which congressional district he would like Johnstown to be included in.

“The current 12th District that stretches through the wealthy north hills of Pittsburgh and out to suburban Youngstown, Ohio, has a wide range of interests that are difficult to represent.

“The current 9th District is a very rural district with only a few old industrial town, like Johnstown, that are seeking to remake themselves for the 21st century,” Wrabley said.

Fair District PA Cambria County Coordinator Deanna Haddle said she does not like Johnstown being a part of the 12th Congressional District because the people and businesses in Butler, Allegheny, Westmoreland, Lawrence and Somerset counties have different incomes and needs.

“It would be much better if all of Cambria County would be included with counties like Somerset and Clearfield,” Haddle said.

Pennsylvania General Assembly members submitted a map Friday to Gov. Tom Wolf, which puts all of Cambria County into the 9th District.