‘This isn’t just a math game gone awry’: Pa. advocates want publicly-drawn maps to be a part of redistricting

William Marx, points to projected images of the old congressional districts of Pennsylvania on top, and the new re-drawn districts on the bottom, while standing in the classroom where he teaches civics in Pittsburgh on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. (Keith Srakocic/AP Photo)

William Marx, points to projected images of the old congressional districts of Pennsylvania on top, and the new re-drawn districts on the bottom, while standing in the classroom where he teaches civics in Pittsburgh on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. (Keith Srakocic/AP Photo)

Advocates are calling on state lawmakers to allow the public to be closely involved in the redistricting process, the once-a-decade event when the commonwealth’s legislative and Congressional district maps are redrawn.

By law, a five-member legislative committee called the Legislative Reapportionment Commission spearheads the map-drawing process. Four of the members are the majority and minority leaders in each legislative chamber, while the fifth is supposed to be someone who’s not in public office. The months-long process also includes a public comment period and an opportunity for Pennsylvanians to sue over maps they don’t like.

But government reform groups like the Committee of Seventy said that hasn’t always kept the map redrawing process fair or transparent.

“More and more, you have uncompetitive general elections and that contributes to a very divisive partisan rhetoric and an inability to govern,” said CEO David Thornburgh, son of the late Gov. Dick Thornburgh.

During an informational meeting held by redistricting advocates, Thornburgh argued the previous map drawing process led to a host of issues. The state Supreme Court tossed out the district maps approved in 2011 after it ruled they had been gerrymandered to favor Republicans. Before that, the High Court also picked the fifth member of the LRC, something it’s allowed to do if the commission fails to appoint someone on its own.

All the while, Thornburgh said, state and federal elections unfairly favored some and boxed out others.

“That serves no purpose other than petty partisan politics. It has nothing to do with the way we govern or the way these districts should represent the citizens who inhabit them,” he said.

 

Carol Kuniholm, who heads the anti-gerrymandering group Fair Districts PA, said she’s pushing for partisan influence on the map drawing process to be balanced by public ideas.

“We have seen up really close what gerrymandered districts do to representation and to the ability for voters to be heard on important matters of policy, and we will be doing everything that we can..to ensure that the citizens are heard,” Kuniholm said.

To make that happen, both redistricting advocacy groups want lawmakers to let the public submit their own maps for consideration.

Michael Skoros, a student at Millersville University, said that move would help the process be more transparent and guided by public input. Skoros drew his own legislative maps as part of a Committee of Seventy-backed initiative called the Citizen Map Corps. 

He said he was frustrated by the way his own district was set up.

“I did a constituent services internship with a state representative in my county, and I realized how hard it was to serve your constituents in a gerrymandered district,” Skoros said. “It’s hard to plan events and host town halls when everyone is so spread out and there’s no real sense of community because the lines are drawn purely for political reasons.”

The commonwealth’s constitution already requires a degree of fair map making. All state House and Senate districts must be “compact, contiguous” and equal in population to one another. No district can break up the representation of any local unit of government, from the county on down.

Critics have argued the current state maps don’t meet those requirements as well as they could.

Skoros’ state Senate district map, meanwhile, won honorable mention in a contest through the Map Corps last year for the way it checked those boxes.

“Something I realized is how easy it is to map. The tools available to us now make it pretty simple for there to be so much transparency in this process,” he said.

Thornburgh said the point of the exercise was exactly that: to show the willingness and competency of people from across the commonwealth in drawing maps that meet constitutional requirements.

“They understand the maps. They can draw maps that meet the guidelines and are more fair than the ones that have been produced in the past,” Thornburgh said.

What’s tricky this time around is that the Census data used to draw new maps may not be ready for another six months. The delay could either push back the timeline for drawing new maps or force lawmakers to use older data sets to produce them more quickly.

Government reform groups like Thornburgh’s haven’t had much success in getting their way in past processes. But he said they’re emboldened by who’s expected to be on the LRC this time: a woman and a woman of color, for the first time in state history.

Either way, he and others will be keeping a close watch on what unfolds over the next year or so.

“This is not just a math game gone awry. There are real consequences to the quality of our politics and our representation,” Thornburgh said.

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