Appointees, not lawmakers, should draw Pennsylvania’s political districts, Wolf-convened panel recommends

Pennsylvania's old congressional map was ruled an unconstitutional gerrymander by the state Supreme Court last year. (US Government)

Pennsylvania’s state legislative and congressional districts should be drawn by an 11-member commission of gubernatorial and General Assembly appointees — not by lawmakers — come 2021, a panel convened by Gov. Tom Wolf recommended Thursday. 

The plan was crafted over six months with online and in-person input from more than 1,000 individuals, including those who attended nine public hearings across the state, from Philadelphia to Williamsport.

“What did we hear? That Pennsylvanians are hungry for change, and for a less partisan, more transparent, and more responsive process for drawing election maps,” Redistricting Reform Commission Chair David Thornburgh, son of former GOP Gov. Dick Thornburgh, said in a statement.

The redistricting reform panel operated without any input from the Legislature’s Republican majority, who declined to participate as, what they termed, “props” in Wolf’s attempt to take away the General Assembly’s constitutional right to draw district lines.

Other commission members include former U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, a Republican; Susan Carty of the Chester County League of Women Voters, and state Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny. 

Every 10 years, lawmakers redraw congressional and legislative districts to match shifting populations. Congressional districts are laid out in a bill passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor; legislative districts are drawn by a panel of Democratic and Republican leaders from the state House and Senate. 

The issue has been near the top of the General Assembly’s agenda since 2018, when the state Supreme Court threw out an old, GOP-drawn congressional map, finding it was unconstitutionally gerrymandered. 

Despite the increased focus from lawmakers and the public, attempts at reform since have fallen flat.

The report released Thursday recommended the creation of a panel made up of five appointees chosen by Republicans in the General Assembly and five chosen by Democrats. The 11th person would be a neutral, non-voting chairperson, chosen by the governor, to act as a mediator.

Redistricting reformers have one more shot at preventing a 2021 gerrymander

 

Anyone who has held elected office, worked as staff for an elected official, or been a lobbyist less than five years before would be ineligible.

Each party would appoint two commission members from their own party, two from the other party, and one unaffiliated or independent member.

“Even acknowledging that both ‘sides’ would likely nominate sympathetic members of the other party, we still believe that adds another degree of useful separation from blatant partisan self-interest,” the report says.

The panel also recommended that anyone appointed should be registered with the same political party for the last five years.

The commission would draw five maps after taking public input. Maps could not consider partisan data or previous election results. Splitting voting precincts would be forbidden, while dividing larger political subdivisions, such as boroughs, townships or counties, would be limited.

All data and software used to design the maps would be made public. Seven of the commission’s 10 voting members would have to agree to approve a map. 

After five maps were selected, the commission would whittle down the selection to three after public meetings. These would then be sent to the General Assembly for final approval. Either a subcommittee or the whole House and Senate would approve the map, the report recommended. 

The General Assembly could make no changes. A two-thirds majority of both the state House and Senate would be required for approval.

If lawmakers are unable to agree, then the redistricting commission would approve a final map, by “a super-majority vote, ranked-choice voting, or some other consensus-driven decision process.”

The report acknowledged the plan might not match what the most fervent supporters of an independent citizens commission wanted — something along the lines of California, where citizens are picked without any say from legislators.

But, the report concludes, “any changes to current process would need to be approved by the General Assembly and the Governor — even if those changes ultimately go before the voters — it is critical that we consider the appropriate role those elected officials should play in any improved process.”

“And as we heard from many public voices along the way, we were determined not to let the perfect stand in the way of the possible,” it continues.

The report also noted that Pennsylvania doesn’t have ballot measures to get politically unpalatable measures passed. So a solution “must rely on the good faith and hard work of its elected representatives to bring about any improvements in the ‘rules of the game’ — in this case how election maps are drawn.”

Carol Kuniholm, executive director of Fair Districts PA — a state redistricting reform advocacy group — said she appreciated the commission’s effort and understood why it backed a moderate solution that didn’t completely cut out the General Assembly.

She also appreciated some of the more novel parts of the plan, like having each party select commissioners from the opposite party and the submission of multiple maps to the General Assembly for approval.

But as of right now, Kuniholm said she would want to see more details on who exactly can serve on the commission and how they are selected.

“It’s definitely a citizens’ commission,” Kuniholm told the Capital-Star. “The independence is really in question, depending on how they spell out the selection process.”

Fair Districts PA is instead backing a plan to create a system like California’s, where citizens apply and are randomly selected to a board that independently collects testimony and draws districts without any input from elected officials.

Kuniholm added that Colorado’s system could be a could be a good compromise, since it includes both randomly selected citizens as well as appointees.

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