Report: Pennsylvanians say they’re fed up with secrecy, manipulation surrounding redistricting — and they can fix it.

The Redistricting Reform Commission's findings and recommendations are out ahead of state lawmakers' return to Harrisburg for fall session — and more debate over the issue.

The exterior of the Pa. State Capitol Building

Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. on the Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

This article appeared on PA Post.

A commission appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf to consider options for reforming Pennsylvania’s redistricting process released its findings Thursday.

Some recommendations align with provisions in a bill already under consideration in the statehouse, though there are key differences. And the report is comparatively vague on most points. That’s by design, according to David Thornburgh, who headed the redistricting reform commission.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“We’re trying to be useful to the legislative process,” said Thornburgh, president and CEO of Philadelphia-based nonprofit the Committee of Seventy. “So, this could be used in whole or it could be used in part. We tried to highlight the relevant features or relevant parts that could be woven into other legislative vehicles. That seems, to me, the most useful way to approach the task at hand.”

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf created the Redistricting Reform Commission by executive order in November 2018, a move the GOP legislative majorities criticized as an overreach.

In an emailed statement, state Senate GOP spokeswoman Jenn Kocher said the report basically redid what legislators already accomplished.

“It took nine months to come up with what we passed a year ago – an independent commission,” Kocher said, referring to Senate Bill 22.

The congressional redistricting measure was re-introduced last spring. A prior version flatlined after getting through the Senate with unanimous support from Republicans at the end of the 2017-18 session.

Their debate stems from a landmark 2018 state Supreme Court decision that overturned the commonwealth’s old congressional map and ordered Wolf and legislators to agree on a new one. That didn’t happen, so the court redrew the map.

The ruling didn’t touch redistricting process itself. That remains unchanged and under lawmakers’ control — but the ensuing debate led to the bills Kocher highlighted, in addition to Wolf’s commission.

Kocher says the commission has been a “distraction … to [legislative] efforts.”

Wolf charged the panel with getting public feedback through online submissions and meetings across the state. Nine meetings were held from April through July.

The highlights

The document released Thursday collects feedback shared by Pennsylvanians who weighed in online and at the public meetings:

  •         Citizens think the state’s redistricting process is broken and corrupt, manipulated by politicians for their own gain, and lacks transparency.
  •         They want a transparent redistricting process that the legislature doesn’t control.
  •         They also want clear criteria for district maps.
  •         They want their communities to belong to one congressional district, not multiple, which was a feature of the map invalidated by the courts after 2016. (That map divided one county in four).
  •         And some said they want prisoners counted where they lived before being incarcerated instead of as part of the prison’s host community.

As for other takeaways and policy recommendations: both the commission’s suggestions and SB 22 call for an 11-person independent commission picked by the governor and legislative leaders from each party. But the report recommends fewer gubernatorial selections (one commissioner versus three).

The commission also recommended specifics for how each party’s legislative leadership should make appointments — pick two from their own and three more from the other party. Such cross-party commission selection by legislative leaders doesn’t exist in other states, though a similar concept was among redistricting reforms vetoed last week by New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu – and an override is unlikely, according to this analysis from the Concord Monitor.

In the scenario envisioned by the report, the governor selects the 11th member, a non-voting chairperson. Under SB22, all 11 commissioners would vote and pick a 12th person to that role. Both call for a supermajority — seven votes — to select maps, ultimately.

Both the commission’s report and SB 22 include a five-year moratorium on serving on the commission for anyone elected to state or federal office or a judicial post or who worked as a lobbyist or worked for an elected official or lobbyist. SB22 would open up the commissioner application process to anyone else for vetting by the Secretary of State. The bill also includes requirements for racial, geographic and ethnic diversity among panelists. And it sets timelines and contingencies for resolving gridlock at various stages of commission selection and mapmaking.

Both say maps should minimize divisions of counties and municipalities. The report advises a strict ban on splitting voting precincts. Both also would forbid drawing districts based on demographic data, election results and/or protecting incumbents, which a handful of states already have scrapped.

SB22’s redistricting process would culminate in the commission selecting two or three maps for lawmakers to choose among after six public meetings across the state. The report suggests selecting five maps, including publicly submitted options, then narrowing the choices to three before another round of hearings and making a final selection for approval by state lawmakers (as is, without the legislature having the ability to amend or change it).

The report released Thursday doesn’t mention a public appeal process, whereas the bill passed by the legislature’s Republican majority details one involving the state Supreme Court and a special master.

The full report along with online survey results, meeting synopses and an analysis of eight states’ redistricting rules are here.

What’s next

Two redistricting reform hearings are scheduled within the next month in Harrisburg.

House State Government Committee Chairman Rep. Garth Everett, R-Luzerne/Union, says he’s the only one on the panel who was in office last time Pennsylvania redistricted in 2011.

So the initial hearings will focus on the basics before moving to specific proposals for change, he said – including bringing in Thornburgh to share the reform commission’s findings and recommendations.

“Nothing’s pre-ordained,” Everett said. “The end goal is to come up with a fair process that [yields] fair maps.”

Everett says changes must happen in light of recent rulings in Pennsylvania and state and federal courts elsewhere that hinged on political gerrymandering.

“If the rulings say that’s going to be the standard of review,” he said, “then to say we don’t change the process at all – I mean, we know we can’t send a gerrymandered map to the court.”

PA Post is a digital-first, citizen-focused news organization that connects Pennsylvanians with accountability and deep-dive reporting.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal