Back to the drawing board

Fair Districts PA talks redistricting

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 11/23/21

HARRISBURG, PA — Pennsylvania is redrawing the maps that dictate which federal and state legislators represent which residents. Occurring every 10 years following the census, the redistricting …

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Back to the drawing board

Fair Districts PA talks redistricting

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HARRISBURG, PA — Pennsylvania is redrawing the maps that dictate which federal and state legislators represent which residents. Occurring every 10 years following the census, the redistricting process has often been a contentious one and resulted in maps with bizarre shapes—jagged edges, long slices, communities split in two—that give one political party an advantage in future elections. This time around, groups like Fair Districts PA (FDPA) are pushing to make the process more transparent, more open to public input and more representative of the Pennsylvania electorate.

“For 20 years the Republicans have had the upper hand in drawing our district lines,” FDPA director Carol Kuniholm said. “So if you look across the map for every level… you’ll see the urban areas have been pretty badly cracked. Places where you can’t really crack them, they’ve been packed.”

But that doesn’t mean FDPA is saying Democratic lawmakers should get more say in how the lines are drawn. Instead, it’s saying that redistricting should be made less partisan altogether.

At the federal level, the commonwealth was divided so unevenly in favor of Republicans that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 2018 and drew up its own, more balanced map.

That court case, however, only applied to federal representatives (those who serve in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.). Pennsylvania uses different boundaries—known as legislative maps—to decide how to assign Pennsylvanians’ representatives and senators in Harrisburg.

“Our state House and Senate did not change [in 2018], and they continue to be among of the most heavily gerrymandered districts in the country,” said Kuniholm. “If you look at your northeast area, there’s some pretty strange stuff in terms of the Senate map in particular. It doesn’t do well in terms of representing people; it does well in terms of keeping incumbents in their own districts.”

Some of the state’s gerrymandering issues have to do with gaining a partisan edge, Kuniholm said, but some of it is about keeping incumbents in their districts despite populations shifts.

The volunteer-run organization has pursued a few different avenues in an attempt to change this. It lobbied the General Assembly to amend the state constitution to create an independent redistricting commission—in order to cut down on partisan conflicts of interest. Despite getting a high number of co-signers, that legislation never received a final vote in time. Another prospective bill, the Legislative and Congressional Redistricting Act (LACRA)—which would have made the map-drawing process more transparent and collaborative with the public—met a similar fate.

Though FDPA was not able to get these bills passed into law ahead of this year’s redistricting, Kuniholm said she remains optimistic with what she’s seen so far.

A five-person commission is tasked with redrawing the legislative district lines: the House and Senate majority leaders, the minority leaders, and a non-elected chair. This year, the latter position is filled by Mark Nordenberg, an expert in law and public policy from the University of Pittsburgh.

“[Nordenberg] seems to be doing it in a way that, so far, has actually been very much in line with the bills that we were proposing,” Kuniholm said. “They’ve had a lot of hearings, they’ve provided the data on a public website, they’ve allowed public comment, they’re accepting map submissions from the public. So, the process so far has been much more transparent, much more open, much more hopeful than it has been in the past.”

In an effort to streamline public participation, the FDPA invited residents to submit their own ideas on how the new maps should be drawn. Using the input from the dozens of citizen-drawn map submissions, Kuniholm recently unveiled the organization’s own “people’s maps” to the Legislative Reapportionment Committee. The people’s maps were drawn according to some strict criteria, Kuniholm said:

Compact, continuousness and minimal splits of counties, municipalities and wards;

Undivided voter precincts;

Representation for minority groups;

Impartiality to political parties.

One criterion not considered, she noted, was incumbency.

“We did not consider where incumbents live; we did not look at incumbents’ residences, so there was no guarantee of consistency for representation,” she said. “Part of the [four caucus leaders’] priority is to protect their colleagues… but I think there was some interest in how we had drawn the map.”

The FDPA also worked with another group called Pennsylvania Voice, which drew “unity maps,” to create districts specifically for communities with high minority representation.

“We took eight of those [unity districts] and incorporated them into our maps,” she said. “Three in Pittsburgh, one in York, one in Lancaster, two in Reading and one in Philadelphia.”

Now that all of the sample maps, data and metrics have been submitted, the commission has the final say on what the actual maps are going to look like. Once the reapportionment commission releases the maps it has drawn, which could be any day now, there will be a 30-day public comment period. And Kuniholm says it’s paramount that residents tell the reapportionment commission what kind of map they want to see.

“The next couple weeks are huge,” she said. “As soon as the maps are available for public review, people need to review them, and people need to think about if these maps work or not.”

The people’s maps and other information about Fair Districts PA can be found at https://www.FairDistrictsPA.com.

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