Four of Pennsylvania’s legislative redistricting commissioners are confirmed. The fifth will decide who wins and loses

Carol Kuniholm, executive director of Fair Districts PA, speaks at a Capitol rally Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (Capitol-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

The Pennsylvania House and Senate okayed the start of legislative redistricting this week, sparking a six-week-long race to find a tie-breaking voice agreeable to Democrats and Republicans.

If they don’t agree, the choice fall to the state Supreme Court, in Democratic hands for the first time in recent memory, and giving them a long sought after trump card in negotiations.

In a press release Tuesday, the Republican-controlled chambers’ top officers, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, and House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, appointed the General Assembly’s four floor leaders to the state’s legislative redistricting commission.

Their confirmation still kicks off the redrawing of 253 state legislative districts — 203 in the House, 50 in the Senate. More than just moving lines and voters, the process will impact the balance of political power in Harrisburg for the next decade.

Those appointed to the commission are 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.

The picks also came with promises of transparency and fairness from Republican leaders.

“Our reapportionment process has a long history of bipartisan compromise and I look forward to seeing the voices of Pennsylvanians reflected fairly in our district lines,” Corman said in a statement.

Unlike the congressional maps, the statehouse maps will be redrawn by legislators alone. Gov. Tom Wolf does not hold a veto on the process. Due to late census data, the process will likely be delayed.

The four leaders must now agree on a chair, who “shall be a citizen of the Commonwealth other than a local, State or Federal official holding an office to which compensation is attached,” according to the the state constitution. They’ll have 45 days to make their pick.

In practice, the leaders never agree on the chair, leaving the task to the high court. The seven justices usually settle on a retired judge, who, like legislators, are partisan elected officials in Pennsylvania.

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

 

While this has normally advantaged Republicans, the high court has been controlled by a liberal majority since 2015. Democrats already have expressed optimism about the suddenly turned tables.

“This year we’ll have an improved Supreme Court of Pennsylvania appointing the tie breaking vote to the Legislative Reapportionment Commission,” Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee chief Jessica Post wrote in a memo this week.”That means Democrats will be competing on fair maps in the Keystone State for the first time in well over a decade.”

The line between a “fair” line and a Democratic gerrymander could be slim, but party operatives privately have argued that any move away from the current maps likely will help Democrats gain control of at least one legislative chamber for the first time since 2010.

Fair, in those cases, could be in the eye of the beholder.

“I saw one of the maps that won awards and it split my county into three pieces,” state Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, told the Capital-Star. “I’m sure it looked good in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh.”

Democrats could also have a more base motive: retribution for past lines that may have forced Democratic incumbents into messy intra-party primaries or into districts favorable to Republicans.

Fair District PA Executive Director Carol Kuniholm said she tries to use this history when prodding Republican lawmakers to accept changes to the redistricting process.

“To think there is not going to be pressure [from Democrats] to get a little bit of revenge is naive,” Kuniholm said. “I am personally puzzled why Republicans are not quick to put better rules in place.”

Changing the constitutional process to redraw state districts wholesale at this point is unworkable. But there are some GOP bills to tweak around the edges.

In the House, state Rep. Wendi Thomas, R-Bucks, has offered a Fair Districts-backed bill to increase the commission’s transparency and add additional limits on how often districts can split local government boundaries.

And in the Senate, Argall introduced further restrictions on who can serve as the chair of the redistricting commission. 

He wants the chair, or the chair’s spouse, to not have been a lobbyist, candidate for office, party official, or staff for an official within the last five years. They should also have voted in two of the last three elections.

“I am trying to find a genuinely unbiased person to serve as the chairman of the commission and to rebuild some trust between Republicans and Democrats,” Argall said of the bill.

This will be the fourth redistricting cycle for Argall, who was first elected to the state Legislature in 1984, and has served in both House and Senate leadership positions.

He said he introduced redistricting reforms within his first few years, but no one was interested. Now, Argall said he was coming back to the topic nearly four decades later because he saw renewed interest from the public.

It would require quick, bipartisan support to turn this bill into law in time to impact the upcoming round of redistricting, which Argall acknowledged. But he thought that was doable with bipartisan input.

“We’re not trying to increase [Wolf’s] veto yield here,” Argall said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Wolf said they’d review the legislation, and that Wolf wanted the legislative district lines to be drawn in a “transparent manner that affords opportunity for public review and input.”

But other Democrats, who worked for so long under the thumb of their partisan opposites and even flipped the state Supreme Court to ensure they’d have the upper hand in 2021, privately want the power they feel they’ve earned.

“The fifth person is going to be on a side,” said one Harrisburg Democratic source. “We can have a non-political, rational, fair person, but they’re going to be a Democrat. That’s how people on our side want to see it.”