‘We have to give it a shot’: Redistricting bill passes Senate committee, as reformers call for more work

Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, addresses the Senate State Government Committee.
Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, addresses the Senate State Government Committee.

A bill that would change the way Pennsylvania draws its political maps got the support of a Senate committee Tuesday, even though lawmakers and activists alike still think it needs some work.

Senate Bill 22, introduced by Sens. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, and Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, would amend the state Constitution to create a commission of citizens to draw the boundaries for Pennsylvania’s congressional and state legislative districts.

Pennsylvania redraws its maps every 10 years based on updated census data. The next round of redistricting is due to take place in 2021, using data from the 2020 census.

Boscola hopes the new redistricting commission could lead that process. The Senate State Government Committee voted 6-4 Tuesday to advance the bill to the Senate floor, where Boscola hopes her colleagues will help draft more detailed rules for selecting the commission members.

While advocates say the bill is an improvement on current laws, they think more could be done to reduce partisan influence on electoral maps.

Responsibility for redistricting currently rests with the General Assembly. The Constitution grants House and Senate leaders authority to draw legislative districts, while state law requires the full Legislature to get the governor’s approval for congressional maps.

Advocates for reform say those practices allow lawmakers to protect partisan interests by drawing boundaries around favorable voting blocs. The state Supreme Court tossed out Pennsylvania’s former congressional map in 2018, calling it an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.

Boscola’s proposal would put redistricting in the hands of 11 citizens — four registered Republicans, four Democrats, and three independents. Her bill would let any voter in the state apply for a seat on the redistricting commission, but lawmakers in the Capitol would have final say on who’s appointed.

Boscola told the Senate committee that the bill still needs some amendments. But she implored her colleagues to let the debate continue before the full Senate.

“What we have now is unacceptable,” Boscola said. “Senate Bill 22 isn’t perfect, but I tell you what: It’s 80 percent there. And we have to give it a shot.”

The current bill doesn’t outline an application process or eligibility requirements for people who want to sit on the commission, or provide any guidelines for lawmakers who must choose appointees from the applicant pool.

Those omissions are all problems for Fair Districts PA, a grassroots organization of citizens calling for redistricting reform.

Patrick Beaty, the group’s legislative director, said there’s nothing in Boscola’s bill to prevent lawmakers from appointing their political allies to the commission.

Without more stringent eligibility requirements for applicants, or selection guidelines for lawmakers, the bill doesn’t do enough to minimize political influence on the redistricting process, Beaty said.

Boscola said she wants to add a provision that would prevent lawmakers’ family members from sitting on the commission. She said she hopes that bipartisan discussions on the Senate floor will help her develop an application and selection process for commissioners.

She pointed out that her bill would require the commission nominees to be approved by a 2/3 vote by the House and the Senate — a measure she hopes would increase confidence in their political independence. The bill would also prohibit the appointment of lobbyists and legislative staffers.

Beaty said one way to promote impartiality is to select commission members randomly from the applicant pool. But that proposal has been rejected by lawmakers, including Folmer, who chairs the State Government Committee.

Folmer said Tuesday that elected officials would be “shirking their duties” to the state Constitution if they passed redistricting responsibility to a group of randomly selected citizens.

He’s also skeptical that a random sampling of citizens would be fit for the job, arguing that “we always turn to the best and the brightest to lead us” in politics.

Boscola is concerned about the reliability of algorithms that some states use to randomly select their redistricting commissioners. She said that machine algorithms created by humans can express human bias and can’t guarantee a truly random selection.

While activists may want to see more from Boscola’s bill, some say it might be Pennsylvania’s best shot at reform before the next round of legislative redistricting takes place in 2021.

The Senate approved the same bill last year by a 48-1 vote. But the measure withered in the House, which failed to vote on it before the end of last year’s legislative session.

Since the bill would amend the state Constitution, it has to get the approval of the House and Senate in two consecutive legislative sessions before it goes to a referendum by the state’s voters.

Boscola hopes the bill will pass the General Assembly in June 2020 and again by February 2021, allowing the state to publicly advertise the referendum vote ahead of the May 2021 primary elections.

If a referendum vote in May 2021 succeeds, the redistricting commission could create new maps ahead of the 2022 midterm election cycle, Boscola said.

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