By Kadida Kenner
On April 26 and 27, four state legislative leaders – House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny – will begin public interviews for a position that will be key to how the next decade of Pennsylvania politics plays out.
That job is to serve as the chair of the 2021 state Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC). The LRC is a five-member panel responsible for redrawing the boundaries for state Senate and state House districts. These state legislative districts must be redrawn to reflect population changes over the past decade as measured by the federal census. Each state Senate district and each state House district must conform to the one person, one vote standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964.
Article II, Section 17, of the state constitution provides that the first four members of the LSC shall be the majority and minority leaders of both the state Senate and House of Representatives. These four members, two from each party, are to choose a fifth member, who serves as chair of the LRC. If the split-party group of four cannot agree on a 5th member, the state Supreme Court will appoint one.
The constitution requires that the 5th member, the chair of the LRC, be a citizen of Pennsylvania who does not hold a local, state or federal office to which compensation is attached. In the past, that has meant former judges or law school academics.
And, sure, those gentlemen – yes, they have always been men – brought distinguished resumes and important expertise to the table. But especially in light of the type of demographic shifts we expect to see once the Census data is delivered in September, the commission is in need of a new kind of chairperson.
Whether that person is chosen by the four existing members of the commission, or, in a scenario where the four commissioners cannot agree, they are then chosen by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the most important qualification for the 5th member is that it must be someone who understands, through life experience or professional expertise – or ideally, both – how the dramatic demographic shifts in the Commonwealth over the past decade affect underserved communities and communities of color.
And they must be a voice for those communities as political districts are drawn, and political power is allocated.
Every 10 years, commissions in Pennsylvania and throughout the country dilute the vote of communities of color through various map-drawing strategies.
Power-driven, partisan commissioners will create majority-minority districts, concentrating the vote of people of color in certain districts with the unintended (or intended) consequence of diluting their influence elsewhere, giving more power to white communities in rural communities.
Another way that happens is the use of a tactic called “prison gerrymandering” to count incarcerated citizens in the districts in which their prison is located – often rural, white communities far from their homes – instead of where they actually reside, shifting the voting power to the communities in which these prisons are located.
The result is very often disproportionate representation for rural, white voters at the expense of communities of color. That’s true in Pennsylvania, and it’s true across the country.
And while the results are often framed as a political party imbalance – at the Congressional level, an Associated Press analysis of maps after the 2016 election found that Republicans won as many as 22 additional U.S. House seats over what would have been expected based on the average vote share in congressional districts across the country – the dilution of the voting power of communities of color has effects far beyond that of party representation.
Diluting the voting power of communities of color means that candidates of color have a harder time winning elections in many parts of the state. It means the makeup of our elected bodies do not reflect the makeup of our electorate. And when the diluting of voting power leads to the underrepresentation of communities of color in the halls of power, it means many critical issues end up on the back burner.
As U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, Wisconsin’s first Black Congressperson, put it in a 2017 op-ed on gerrymandering, “When one group’s voting power is corrupted, it corrupts our entire electoral system. We deserve a political process where voters handpick their leaders, not the other way around.”
As the four sitting members of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission prepare to hear from potential 5th members, let’s be optimistic that they land on someone who can give a voice to those often-silenced communities. For once, let’s hope the process is driven by fair representation of all Pennsylvanians, and not by the political calculations of a handful of politicians and their hired lawyers and academics.
And, again, if those four members of the commission can’t come to an agreement on the fifth commissioner and the job then falls to the state Supreme Court.
As evidenced by the attack on the independent judiciary in 2018 when a number of lawmakers attempted to impeach some of those same justices while those lawmakers were attempting a mid-decade redistricting, if the final decision is left to the democratic-controlled court, it will only add to the disdain certain legislators have for it.
However, it’s possible that removing politics-forward legislators from the equation could mean fulfilling the promise of a truly representative fifth commissioner
No matter who makes the ultimate decision, we’ll be watching closely to see which direction they choose.
Kadida Kenner is the former director of Why Courts Matter – PA. Beginning in early May, she will be the founding executive director of the New Pennsylvania Project, an effort to expand and change the electorate in the Commonwealth through empowerment, civic engagement, education, voter registration and mobilization. She writes from Harrisburg.