New group asks: Can Pa. citizens play their way to better district maps?

David B. Thornburgh, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, says the ultimate goal of the project is to reinvigorate how Pennsylvanians think about representative democracy. (Image courtesy of University City Science Center)

David B. Thornburgh, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, says the ultimate goal of the project is to reinvigorate how Pennsylvanians think about representative democracy. (Image courtesy of University City Science Center)

As Republicans and Democrats in Harrisburg continue their bitter fight over a state Supreme Court order to redraw Pennsylvania’s congressional maps, one group is taking a longer view.

In a bid to increase awareness about gerrymandering, fledgling organization Draw the Lines is making professional digital mapping tools available to the public.

In many ways, the inspiration behind the idea dates to 2012, when Allentown piano teacher Amanda Holt noticed how skewed Pennsylvania’s House and Senate maps were, and drew her own — ultimately helping force the redistricting panel to make its plan less partisan.

Now a Republican Lehigh County commissioner, she’s supporting Draw the Lines as it tries to empower tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians to do basically the same thing.

“People participating in their government makes for a better government,” she said at a recent press conference.

Draw the Lines is, fundamentally, a contest.

Participants will have access to District Builder, open-source software from Philadelphia-based company Azavea, that gives them essentially the same data and tools politicians use to draw maps.

They’ll compete in a March Madness-style tournament with regional brackets and a statewide winner. The best results would be submitted to lawmakers in Harrisburg.

Project director Chris Satullo said the goal is giving average people the resources they need to challenge politicians on bad maps.

“We will run that play over and over again until the message gets through that the voters of Pennsylvania are ready, they are willing, they are able to do this democratic task themselves,” he said.

The project is backed by the Philadelphia-based nonprofit the Committee of Seventy.

CEO David Thornburgh — son of former Gov. Dick Thornburgh — said the ultimate goal is to reinvigorate how Pennsylvanians think about representative democracy.

The concept of districts fairly representing the people who live in them, he said, has largely been lost amid the “political laser surgery” often used to draw maps today.

“We have disinterested experts from Stanford or MIT or wherever coming in to weigh in on this process, but they don’t know about Pennsylvania,” Thornburgh said.

The project is still finding partners, and has about a third of the funding it needs.

The first contest — which will focus on congressional maps — is slated to launch in fall. Satullo said they aim to get at least 10,000 people involved this year.

“Amanda Holt’s story,” he said, “shows what the power of one can be — one stubborn, persistent, dedicated citizen. So imagine what would happen with representative democracy and redistricting in Pennsylvania if we had an army of Amanda Holts?”

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