Answering calls for transparency, Senate committee holds first public hearing on redistricting

Marisa Nowicki’s award-winning congressional map. (Courtesy Draw the Lines PA)

After the first public hearing on congressional redistricting, Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, said he felt like a student again.

Comparing the once-a-decade process to his college multivariate statistics course, Argall and his colleagues on the Senate State Government Committee had just heard testimony from mapping and population experts, as well as redistricting reform advocates. 

Wednesday’s hearing was the first step in planning how best to redraw Pennsylvania’s 17 congressional districts. 

The commonwealth is set to lose a congressional seat in the decennial remapping, going from 18 to 17 districts. The process also is separate from the redrawing of the state’s 253 legislative seats, which is underway now.

“We need objective, well-defined criteria to draw good congressional maps — especially if we want to minimize the divisions of counties and municipalities,” Argall, the committee’s chairman, said. “This needs to be very well-defined by us so that future court decisions do not misinterpret our legislative intent.”

Mapping technology has proven constituents can participate in redistricting, but not all committee members are confident the process will be smooth, even with additional input.

“With all [this] talk of software drawing things, humans have to get the parameters for the computer to do that, and what I suspect is we won’t even be able to agree on what the priorities are going to be,” Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, said. “We’ll probably wind up in court.”

Redistricting, explained: What it is, how it works, and how Pa. politicians get to draw their own maps

Gerrymandering — the manipulation of electoral boundaries for political advantage — has been contested at the state and national levels for years. Pennsylvania has been called one of the most gerrymandered states by reform advocates. Maps such the infamous “Goofy kicking Donald Duck” — which represented the old 7th Congressional District in the Philadelphia suburbs — back up their claims.

In 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the 2011 congressional district map — drawn by Republicans and signed into law in 2011 by former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett — violated the state constitution, prompting the court to redraw the map and issued a new one.

Fair Districts PA and the Committee of Seventy, whose members testified at the hearing, have worked to correct this problem by offering possible solutions that balance Constitutional requirements with clear drawing criteria.

“Metrics are really important, both as we evaluate and also draw maps. It’s particularly important that those metrics be shared and made transparent to the public in the process of drawing maps,” David Thornburgh, executive director of the Committee of Seventy, said. “I don’t get much argument with the statement that simple metrics are better than complicated metrics.”

Amanda Holt, a piano teacher turned redistricting specialist whose research led to a state Supreme Court decision that changed state legislative districts across Pennsylvania, reiterated frustrations from citizens who say they feel disenfranchised and isolated when their counties and municipalities are divided.

In testimony, Holt outlined how lawmakers can design maps that keep communities intact without violating the Constitution — by setting clear objectives, limiting criteria, prioritizing transparency, and establishing enforceable outcomes.

“This would at least cut in half the number of places currently divided and even prevent the division of any municipality outside of Philadelphia,” she said.

Districts must be as equal as practicable, she suggested — adding that no municipality be divided unless it exceeds the size of a congressional district.

The challenge — advocates and lawmakers said — is reaching a consensus on defining communities of interests and setting measurable criteria. For instance, a community of interest could be considered a county, municipality, or group of people.

Senate Bill 222, which was referred to the Senate State Government Committee in February, outlines guidelines for legislative and congressional redistricting. 

The legislation — sponsored by Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton — defines a community of interest as a “neighborhood or geographically confined area of persons who share similar social, cultural, and economic interests or other shared interests.”

Simplifying and jokingly suggesting that a community of interest could divide Steelers fans and Eagles fans, Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, noted that the definition could target specific demographics to reduce voting power.

“This country has had a long and storied history of disenfranchising people of color and communities of color,” Street said of racial and language minorities.

But the best way to ensure people are represented accurately and fairly is through input, Thornburgh said.

“If someone says, ‘Yeah, maybe inadvertently, you’ve drawn a line through this cultural community, racial community, language community, and we can’t tolerate that,’ you’ve then got some useful feedback,” he added.

The next public hearing on congressional redistricting will be held in southeastern Pennsylvania; Argall said the details are still being finalized.