State Senator David Argall (R-Mahanoy City) last week proposed two constitutional amendments that would affect state-legislative redistricting in Pennsylvania. 

The first reform the senator wants to make would change the process for choosing the chair of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC), which oversees remapping of the General Assembly’s districts every 10 years. Current law directs the state Supreme Court to pick a chairperson, effectively deciding which party controls the five-member commission on which the Republican and Democratic leaders of the state House and state Senate sit.

For the most recent round of redistricting that concluded this winter, the majority of Supreme Court justices selected fellow Democrat Mark Nordenberg to preside over the LRC. Many Republicans expressed dissatisfaction with Nordenberg’s role in reapportionment, particularly on the House side, as he oversaw the creation of a new map that will almost certainly cost several Republicans their seats. Led by House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Quarryville) and Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Bellefonte), House Republicans asked the Supreme Court to block implementation of the plan but the justices unanimously refused.

Argall’s amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution would call upon the four legislative leaders to first attempt to appoint an LRC chairperson of their own choosing. Failing that, the Supreme Court would choose a chair but could only do so at random from the senior judges who currently sit on the Superior Court and the Commonwealth Court. Had such a rule been in place for the most recent reapportionment process, the court would have been more likely to choose a Republican, as the GOP has majorities on the Superior and Commonwealth courts.

The other reform Argall plans to introduce would bar the LRC from adjusting the state’s population data for “group quarters” populations. This change would prevent the commission from counting a state prison inmate for purposes of redistricting as residing at his or her “last known address” — which Argall described as “arbitrary” — and instead would count the prisoner as living in the district in which his or her correctional facility is located. 

During reapportionment last year, Democrats argued that prisoners should be counted as residing where they last lived before being sent to jail. Republicans contended that if prisoners must be counted as living at their home addresses, the same should apply to others who live in group quarters, e.g. military barracks, college dormitories and elderly-care facilities. 

In August, the Democrats on the LRC prevailed in a party line vote whereby they decided to count state prisoners as residing at their most recent home addresses.

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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Senator David G. Argall” by Senator David G. Argall.