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Lawmakers could win unchecked election power

Plus, what our redistricting reporter learned from covering the battle over Pa.'s political maps.

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A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

March 24, 2022 | spotlightpa.org

Fringe theory, fair maps, police records, redistricting lessons, debate rules, hidden money, fired officers, dark money, and voting machines.
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The U.S. Supreme Court this month left open the possibility that it could endorse a fringe conservative legal theory that would give state legislatures unchecked powers over election rules before the 2024 presidential election.

It's called the "independent state legislature doctrine," and legal experts fear it could radically alter election administration across the country, Spotlight PA's Ethan Edward Coston reports in collaboration with Stateline. 

Republican officials cited the theory, which asserts that state courts do not have jurisdiction over election policy, in two key cases filed in North Carolina and Pennsylvania over congressional maps selected by their highest courts. The Pennsylvania case is pending in federal court, though much of it was recently thrown out.

The question of what makes a political map fair dominated this redistricting cycle and the subsequent legal challenges. Kate Huangpu has a deep dive into the question.

Also this week, a judge has scolded the Pennsylvania State Police for the agency’s poor response to a reporter seeking trooper emails, text messages, and voicemails — some of which may no longer exist, Gary Harki reports.

And finally, Spotlight PA is hosting two “Pennsylvania in the Spotlight” U.S. Senate debates this April in partnership with our founding members — The Philadelphia Inquirer, Trib Total Media, PennLive/The Patriot-News, and WITF. Get all the details here.
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"It means that those who are most self-interested in retaining their positions also have the most power now in dictating the rules of the game."

—Joshua Douglas, of the University of Kentucky, on how a fringe legal theory could give state legislatures a blank slate to set voting rules
» Former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane arrested for DUI

» Pa. election 2022: Tell Spotlight PA what coverage matters to you

» Pennsylvania’s 2022 race for governor: What we know so far

» Pennsylvania’s 2022 U.S. Senate race: What we know so far

What I learned covering Pa.'s redistricting fight

When I first came to Spotlight PA, my redistricting knowledge was limited to what I learned in my AP Government class in high school. In six action-packed months, I took a crash course that showed me how important redistricting is for so many political systems in Pennsylvania.

My first step was reading through redistricting opinions penned by state Supreme Court justices over the past decade and talking with insiders. I found that my best resources were the people who had been closely involved in redistricting — legislators, other reporters, activists, and academics. However, understanding the foundational math and political science that governs redistricting proved an easier task than uncovering why the maps had been drawn. I learned what software was being used and what metrics were observed, but I struggled to find what guiding principles were centered when legislators and their staff drew maps. 

My greatest challenge was the opacity built into the redistricting process. Officials would often issue vague timelines and then release maps without warning or details on their approach to drawing the lines, leaving me scrambling to gather and analyze them. And that chaotic approach is their prerogative because the Pennsylvania Constitution doesn't require that mapmakers explain their choices.

Though it would be near impossible to explain every single district line in a map — there are thousands of potential maps and districts — the general lack of standardization makes it difficult for map drawers, and observers like me, to compare plans. 

Some map makers did provide briefs explaining their maps before the state Supreme Court called for them, which allowed insights into the map drawers' choices and values. However, this was done of their own volition, so future redistricting cycles might not be as transparent. The court hearings also provided insight into mapmaker’s choices, but they happened at the end of the redistricting cycle, leaving the public without much access to the process prior to the court dates.

Redistricting advocates and academics have permanently changed the way reporters can cover redistricting. Learning to analyze maps and explain their consequences allowed me to share that information with readers, a transferral of knowledge that increases citizen participation in a process that is a cornerstone of a democratic government.

As redistricting reform grows in popularity, I hope that my coverage will push for greater transparency, accountability, and public involvement in this process to create a more representative democracy. While my future coverage of the state government might not focus on redistricting, I know that my time covering redistricting has expanded my knowledge and shaped how I think about representing the needs of Pennsylvanians in all my reporting.
Kate Huangpu, Spotlight PA

DEBATE RULES: Four leading GOP candidates for governor — Lou Barletta, Jake Corman, Bill McSwain, and Dave White — have signed a letter saying they won't participate in primary debates unless the moderator is a registered Republican, has not spoken negatively about them, and does not work for a critical outlet. The Inquirer's Jonathan Tamari says this rules out "virtually any nonpartisan news org." 

HOUSE MONEY: While Pennsylvania's Senate started posting member expenses online last year, following Spotlight PA and The Caucus reporting, the state House still hasn't. As a result, The Caucus reports, eyebrow-raising, taxpayer-funded purchases continue to go unnoticed. House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) said House rules need to be changed first, but there's no such proposal pending. 

FIVE FIRED: Five Pittsburgh police have been fired over the death of Jim Rogers, who died after he was repeatedly tasered by officers investigating a bike theft in the city last year. TribLIVE reports city officials declined to name the officers or explain the decision-making process around the terminations. Three other officers involved have been reinstated and recommended for disciplinary action.

FINANCIAL SUPPORT: Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's bid for governor is getting a boost from a Democratic dark money group that has already spent more than $1 million booking laudatory ads, per The Inquirer. NBC reports Shapiro is also doubling down on abortion rights, which could boost Democratic turnout in the November. But there are risks, and some observers question his timing.

DOMINION CASE: Pennsylvania's highest court has sided with Dominion Voting Systems in the company's bid to ensure that any inspection of its voting machines for a GOP inquiry into Pennsylvania's 2020 election be done by a lab with federal credentials. The vendor already hired by state Senate Republicans to conduct the review is unaccredited. The state Supreme Court ruled along party lines.

» AP: Pennsylvania approves stronger charter school regulations

» CITY & STATE: Most guv candidates support gift ban legislation

» LNP: Search warrant executed in Carlisle could lead to Jan. 6 charges

» PENNLIVE: Pa. auditor general to close school audit bureau

» WESA: Thousands of Pennsylvanians could lose Medicaid coverage

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org. Love the riddler? Chip in and become a member of Spotlight PA so we can keep the good times rolling.

ANIMAL CROSSING (Case No. 139)A farmer wants to cross a river and take with him a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage. He has a boat, but it can only fit himself plus either the wolf, the goat, or the cabbage. If the wolf and the goat are alone on one shore, the wolf will eat the goat. If the goat and the cabbage are alone on the shore, the goat will eat the cabbage. How can the farmer bring all three across the river without anything being eaten?

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Which way do you live? (Find last week's clue here)

Congrats to Kyle C. who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Annette I., Jon N., Michael H., Fred O., Philip C., Rebecca D., Barbara W., George S., Lou R., and Mary B.
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