Creating a fairer map: Pa. Redistricting Reform Commission kicks off public input tour

The first of nine meetings drew more than 50 people in Williamsport Thursday evening.

Pennsylvania's congressional map as drawn in 2011. In 2018, it was deemed an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander by the Pa. Supreme Court (Keystone Crossroads)

Pennsylvania's congressional map as drawn in 2011. In 2018, it was deemed an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander by the Pa. Supreme Court (Keystone Crossroads)

Pennsylvania will redraw its congressional and legislative districts after the 2020 census – and there’s a renewed push to change the rules before that happens.

To get voters’ input on creating future congressional maps, the Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission is touring the state for a series of public meetings.

The first was in Williamsport Thursday night and drew more than 50 people.

“To me, gerrymandering is a gateway into voter suppression,” said Ron Williams, who’s involved with Fair Districts PA.

Williams believes gerrymandering leads to policies that further disenfranchise voters.

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“You have districts, which are safe, you have districts where the power really goes to the party,” Williams said. “The party controlling those districts allows that power to remain. And then we see other kinds of voter suppression come in.”

Ron Williams, of Fair Districts PA, testifies at a Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission meeting in Williamsport on April 4, 2019. (Emily Previti/Keystone Crossroads)

Congressional districts in Pennsylvania are currently drawn by the legislature and approved by the governor. The last time this happened, in 2o11, a map was drawn that many considered among the most unfairly gerrymandered in the nation.

Although the state Supreme Court overturned Pa.’s old congressional map and replaced it with a new one last year, the underlying process for drawing maps moving forward was not altered.

Gov. Wolf created the commission to propose ideas for how to reform the process moving forward. 

Attempts to alter redistricting rules via a state constitutional amendment failed during the last legislative session. Now, because of the time it takes to change the state constitution, there’s probably not enough time before the next redistricting in 2021, although two state lawmakers are taking another shot.

Commissioner Amanda Holt says there might be another way.

“Maybe there are some areas that weren’t covered under the constitution that could be looked at,” Holt said.

Amanda Holt, a Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commissioner, speaks at a meeting in Williamsport on April 4, 2019. (Emily Previti/Keystone Crossroads)

Holt, a Republican Lehigh County Commissioner who successfully sued over the state legislative map in 2011, thinks lawmakers could create quantitative parameters for maps without changing the state constitution.

Holt also hopes the public feedback push – which also includes online submissions – will unearth some fresh ideas.

Jordi Comas, a councilman from Lewisburg, which sits on the Susquehanna River in Union County, emphasized that numbers alone shouldn’t determine boundaries.

“I can imagine an argument for district that would include the river towns, Sunbury, Lewisburg, Milton,” he said. “Those river towns have more in common with each other in some ways than they do with the Western or Eastern ends of their counties, which are very different. And that’s not something that compact and contiguous and avoiding splits will show you.”

The commission’s findings are due this coming fall.

GOP leaders have sharply criticized the panel, named below, for not reflecting all corners of Pennsylvania.

  • Lee Ann Banaszak, Penn State University
  • Dr. Damary Bonilla-Rodriguez, Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs
  • Susan Carty, President, League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania
  • Kathy Dahlkemper, Erie County Executive
  • Charlie Dent, Former Congressman
  • Amanda Holt, Lehigh County Commissioner
  • Rev. Robert Johnson, Tindley Temple United Methodist Church
  • Sharmain Matlock-Turner, President, Urban Affairs Coalition
  • Wes Pegden, Carnegie Mellon University
  • David Thornburgh, President and CEO, Committee of Seventy
  • Secretary of the Commonwealth or designee

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