In first hearing in 3 years, activists agree Pa. redistricting needs a fix. They disagree on how to get there

By: - September 18, 2019 6:02 pm

(Capital-Star photo).

David Thornburgh has a message about the state of Pennsylvania’s political maps, and he wants lawmakers to hear it whether they want to or not.

“It sometimes feels there’s just too much cheating going on,” Thornburgh, president of the good-government group Committee of Seventy and son of former Republican Gov. Dick Thornburgh, said Wednesday.

Thornburgh made the remarks during an appearance before the House State Government Committee, as the panel held its first hearing in three years on redistricting reform.

The standing-room-only session featured Thornburgh, as well as Fair Districts PA Executive Director Carol Kuniholm and three members of California’s redistricting commission.

Their testimony near-universally decried gerrymandering — or the drawing of district boundaries for political gain by a political party — for increasing partisanship, leaving Pennsylvanians feeling disenfranchised and reducing their trust in government.

Currently, the General Assembly draws a new congressional map every 10 years that is approved by the governor. A panel of legislative leaders, meanwhile, is tasked with creating the districts they and their colleagues represent. 

But differences over the fine details of a plan to draw non-partisan maps that everyone agrees are fair created some divisions among reform advocates.

As advocates packed the hearing room, dozens more were shuttled off to a separate space in the Capitol to watch the proceedings remotely.

After the hearing, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, did not commit to a timeline for action. 

But with different stakeholders pushing their own plans, from Fair Districts to Gov. Tom Wolf, Everett said that more hearings would be necessary to find the right course of action.

[Click here to read a more thorough description of Fair District’s plan, and here to read about the  proposal from Wolf’s redistricting reform commission.]

“I think the goal is to come up with fair maps that people have faith in when they go to vote,” Everett said.

He added that he hopes to set better criteria for drawing maps, pointing to the difficulty in crafting districts that don’t split one of Pennsylvania’s 2,625 municipalities — the third-highest number in the nation.

Splits of a borough, township, or county are often at the center of complaints from such reform advocates as Kuniholm. The state Constitution says those bodies cannot be split “unless absolutely necessary.”

Redistricting has been at the center of Pennsylvania’s political conversation since the state Supreme Court threw out a Republican-drawn congressional map in 2018, ruling it was unconstitutionally gerrymandered.

Despite widespread and bipartisan legislative support, no action has been taken to fix how Pennsylvania draws its political maps. 

Top legislative leaders have been skeptical, if not outright opposed, to reforms. There is also disagreement among supporters on the details of any proposed plan. 

Pennsylvania also lacks a referendum system to let citizens pass their own plan without the General Assembly’s approval.

“For anything to move here, you folks … will have to embrace it,” Thornburgh said.

Of interest: ‘communities of interest’

In answering questions from skeptical Republicans, advocates exposed some of the divides.

Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, asked a panel including Kuniholm and Concerned Citizens for Democracy’s Brian Gordon about “communities of interest.”

The term refers to a region that shares “social, cultural, racial, ethnic, and economic interests common to the population of the area, which are probable subjects of legislation,” according to a 2002 Kansas law. Twenty-four states consider them when drawing maps.

While answering Diamond, Gordon said the term is a “horribly mushy standard.”

After the meeting, Kuniholm called it a “very vague term.” But while drawing majority-minority districts is a top priority, she said she is focused on making sure any new districts respect municipal boundaries over communities of interest.

“It can be gamed. You can bring in union groups to say ‘our community of interest is this’ or Tea Party folks to say ‘our community of interest is this,’” Kuniholm said. “It skews the process.”

The bills pushed by Kuniholm’s group do not include communities of interest as a criteria for drawing districts.

That loss could create splits among redistricting advocates. 

Micah Sims, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of Common Cause, a good-government group, said that communities of interest are critical to defending the voting rights of some minority groups.

In particular, it would help growing Latinx populations in Philadelphia, Allentown, and Reading, that are too small for their own district. They could be split at-will, Sims contended, without a clause allowing districts to be drawn to keep communities of interest together.

While that could create tough choices over which way to draw a district, “somebody’s got to make a choice,” Sims said. “That’s what we have a commission for.”

Some Republicans counter that the choice should rest instead with elected lawmakers, since they have the practical experience of legislating and representing a community. 

Plus, the example set by California, often held up as a model for how independent commissions can work, has left some wary.

After the state created its new redistricting commission in 2010, Democratic interest groups made shell groups with links to the party to testify during public hearings and influence the mapping process. 

Commission members have held that they were aware of attempts to influence them when drawing maps, and accounted for them during the process.

The California commissioners who spoke Wednesday praised the transparency of their system — all discussions must be held in a public meeting, and all emails are public records. 

They said their system helped rebuild public trust in politics, and defended the use of communities of interest.

“You want a representative who understands your issues, and will advocate for your community on those issues,” commissioner Cynthia Dai told the Capital-Star after the hearing, adding: “That’s the definition of a fair district.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.