Wolf creates new redistricting oversight panel ahead of fraught map-drawing process

The panel will review how redistricting works in other states and develop standards for determining integrity and fairness.

Pennsylvania State Capitol building

Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Pennsylvania’s governor issued an executive order Monday creating a new panel of experts to advise him on passing a new congressional map next year.

Tom Wolf, a Democrat, says he’s trying to add a new layer of “fairness and transparency” to the politically fraught redistricting process.

“The decisions that are made through the drawing of new district boundaries will affect every person and community in Pennsylvania for the next decade,” he said in a statement. “That is why I have tasked this advisory council with listening to the people of Pennsylvania and providing their expert advice so that I can better evaluate the maps in the best interest of all Pennsylvanians.”

The process of passing a congressional map, which the state must do every decade based on new census numbers, is essentially the same as passing a bill into law. The Republican-controlled House and Senate will negotiate and approve a draft map, then Wolf can either approve it, or strike it down. When divided governments haven’t been able to agree on a map in past years, a court has had to step in and pick one.

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Wolf’s new council, he says, will be tasked with reviewing how redistricting works in other states, developing standards for determining whether a given map “improves the integrity and fairness and prevents the dilution of a person’s vote,” and ensuring that districts are compact, contiguous, and represent people proportionally.

He says they’re supposed to engage Pennsylvanians to see what they want in a congressional map, as well. The administration has launched a new redistricting website where people will be able to submit their own map proposals, make comments, and highlight communities of interest that they believe shouldn’t be split between districts.

The GOP-controlled House has a similar website.

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The members of Wolf’s panel are mostly — but not all — academics. They are Drexel University law professor Tabatha Abu El-Haj, Penn State political scientist Lee Ann Banaszak, Gettysburg College mathematician Beth Campbell, Penn State geographer Christopher S. Fowler, West Chester University political scientist John J. Kennedy, and former Philadelphia city solicitor Sozi Tulante.

Republicans have also promised fairness and transparency in this round of redistricting, and House lawmakers are already well into a series of public hearings they’re holding across the state. But there are signs that when the map-drawing process gets going in earnest, things will get tense.

The historically fraught process comes amid rampant partisan divide in Harrisburg, where Republicans have been intensely critical of the way Wolf’s Department of State handled the 2020 election and COVID mitigation.

One Democratic group, anticipating a deadlock over the maps, filed a lawsuit asking the Commonwealth Court to prepare to take over the map-drawing job.

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