It was a classic trope of a beloved old comic strip.

Every fall, your Sunday newspaper (remember those?) would feature a panel of the Peanuts comic where good ol’ Charlie Brown would line up, eager to kick a football held by the devious Lucy.

Every previous year, when he’d run up to try the kick, Lucy would yank the football away at the last instant.  Charlie would fly through the air, a forlorn look on his face, before landing on his backside with a terrible thud.

Maybe this year!

In the newest strip, Lucy would cajole, “This time is different. This time, I’ll hold the ball for you."

We’d see Charlie Brown talk himself into that dubious proposition.  He’d line up, race to the ball and ….”

Lucy would yank it away again. Then she’d offer a novel explanation for why things had to be this way.

Which brings us, of course, to Harrisburg politicians and the people who petition them for reforms.

The latest example of their game of Lucy and the football, one of the biggest and saddest ever, was the failure of the constitutional amendment on redistricting reform pushed so energetically for two years by the volunteer activist group Fair Districts PA.

If you were not steeped in the ways of Harrisburg, you could be forgiven, in early 2018, for believing this amendment had a real chance of passing.  After all, it had a robust 107 co-sponsors in the House, where only 102 votes are needed to OK a bill.

Alas, if you’ve watched Harrisburg in action over the years (a recipe for terminal cynicism), you just knew the pols were fixing to give the activists another Charlie Brown moment.

Cartoon of a foot, presumably Charlie Brown's, in the air after not kicking the fooball again.
Image Credit: Illustration by Rob Tornoe

 

Landing with a thud

Sure enough, it played out cruelly.  First, in a surprise, a watered-down version of the amendment passed the state Senate and moved to the House, where it supposedly had 107 willing backers.  Yet, somehow, it never even came up for a vote in the lower chamber. The deadline for passing the constitutional amendment elapsed.

The details of all the legislative maneuvering that went into this betrayal no longer matter. Suffice it to say: It’s always something.

Politicians who don’t want to change a useful status quo will always invent very sober-sounding reasons why reform was ill-advised, not possible.

It ain't over 'til we say it's over

Sounds depressing, huh? So, should we just forget about fixing Harrisburg and go watch Netflix?

No!  Let’s change the mood. A bold prediction:  

The chance for real reforms in how Pennsylvania draws its election maps is far from dead.

In fact, it’s never been brighter.

First off, the tireless work of educating and energizing citizens that Fair Districts Pa. did has destroyed for all time a favorite canard of do-nothing lawmakers: “Nobody cares about this but a few wide-eyed radicals from Philly.”

Fair Districts has shown that the grassroots do care, in all 67 counties, all 203 state House districts, all 50 state Senate districts, all 18 congressional districts of the Commonwealth.

Unlike in 2011,  politicians considering election maps in 2021 will be vividly aware that thousands of well-informed voters are watching their every move.  That alone changes the calculus a bit.

A whole new ballgame

More grounds for hope:

The political balance of power in 2021 in Pennsylvania, while hard to predict in full detail now, will definitely look very different from 2011.

Back then, the mapmaking for both Congress and General Assembly was a partisan slam-dunk.  One party, the Republicans, controlled the legislature, governor’s mansion and state Supreme Court.

Thanks in part to the GOP’s gerrymanders – and in part to the popularity of Donald Trump in many of those 67 counties – the party now holds an even firmer hold on the General Assembly than it did in 2011.   

Elections ... they matter

Still,  two general elections stand between now and the next redistricting.  Every seat in the General Assembly will be decided by voters before then.

And that injects some uncertainty into the equation.

Another big difference: The current governor, Tom Wolf, is a Democrat.  Given his recent re-election, Republicans will know that, unlike in 2011, they can’t ram through a favorable partisan map with an easy thumbs-up from the governor.

What’s more, the elected state Supreme Court is now dominated 5-2 by Democrats, a sharp turnaround from 2011.  That’s the court that just got done tossing out the GOP’s 2011 congressional gerrymander and replacing it with a map more favorable to Democrats.  (Remember, the 2011 map was so extremely “red” that nearly any replacement was going to be helpful to the blue team.)

In other words, the Republicans who still run the General Assembly may come to see that the 2021 mapmaking poses dangers for them.  Too little control.

They might conclude that a more transparent, fair, public-oriented process to produce the maps is a less risky option than leaving it up to revenge-minded Democrats.  (Remember, Democrats gerrymander, too, when they get the chance.)

What’s more, the high court’s precedent-setting ruling about the old congressional map almost guarantees that any map showing a strong partisan tilt will be challenged in court, with a decent chance of getting thrown out again.

So, just rely on lawsuits?

No, fixing bad maps via lawsuit should be only a last-ditch solution.  The court’s 2018 ruling, while it led to a better map, triggered an ugly scene:  voter confusion, legal chaos and partisan sniping that included calls for impeaching the judges who made the ruling.

This sequence damaged public confidence in the General Assembly, the courts and the map that resulted.  

If you don’t fancy seeing the 2022 elections thrown into chaos by a similar circus, you should root for the General Assembly to reform the map-making processes well before any court gets involved.

Remember, fixing the process for the congressional map does not require a constitutional amendment and all the hurdles that entails. It can happen by simple statute.  

And, even though the Legislative Reapportionment Commission set up by the state Constitution will remain in place for 2021, lawmakers could still tweak how the commission operates to make it more orderly, transparent and open to public input.

Reform could still happen. It really could.

In a nice irony, pragmatic political calculation might be just the thing to turn today’s football-yanking Lucys in Harrisburg into the reform champions of tomorrow.