No doubt, 2020 was a monumental political year. But 2021 may have even longer lasting impacts for Pennsylvania’s politics. Why? Pennsylvania will redraw its U.S. House and General Assembly voting district lines—the districts that determine who you vote for every two years for these offices.
We will live with these boundaries for the next decade; we better get it right.
Redistricting is a massive process involving Census data, high-powered mapping software, and intense community politicking. It needs to be done every 10 years, after the census, to rebalance voting district lines with equal population. People were born, passed away, and moved since the last time these districts were drawn.
Easy enough, right? Not really. In 2011, the last time we redistricted, Pennsylvania ended up with some of the country’s worst gerrymanders. (Who can forget Goofy Kicking Donald Duck, the old PA 7th congressional district?) This is because backroom deals, partisan motives, and straight-up vengeance has historically dictated why voting districts are often incomprehensible.
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This year, Pennsylvanians have a chance to change the narrative. I’m asking you to apply to serve as the chair of the Reapportionment Committee—the group that will be drawing PA’s state legislative districts. Applications are due this Friday, April 9th. The person in this role can be a bulwark against partisan influences that lead to gerrymandering, unequal representation, and the further decaying of faith in our democracy.
I lead Draw the Lines PA, a public education initiative from the Committee of Seventy that invites Pennsylvanians to engage in redistricting by drawing their own district lines. Since our first public mapping competition in 2018, we’ve seen over 6,000 Pennsylvanians attempt to map Pennsylvania, with over 1,400 completed entries. These mappers, ranging in age from 13 to septuagenarians, have proven they are ready, willing and able to take the lead on this core task of democracy.
In 2011, the last time we redistricted, Pennsylvania ended up with some of the country’s worst gerrymanders. This is because backroom deals, partisan motives, and straight-up vengeance has historically dictated why voting districts are often incomprehensible.
I also chaired the bipartisan Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission two years ago. We traveled the commonwealth, hearing from citizens about the past absurdities foisted upon their communities by gerrymandered district lines and gathering their ideas on how to fix it.
Combining these efforts with the massive armies of redistricting advocates recruited by organizations like Fair Districts PA and Common Cause, it is clear that Pennsylvanians are paying attention to what was once a little-understood issue.
This week, we are reaching the first major milestone in the state legislative mapping process. (Congressional redistricting, which has an entirely different procedure in Pennsylvania, won’t occur until later this year.) By this Friday, April 9th, any Pennsylvania citizen who doesn’t hold paid elected office can apply to serve on the body that will be drawing the state house and senate maps.
Following a detailed timeline spelled out in the Pennsylvania Constitution, legislative leadership formed the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, or LRC. Four-fifths of the LRC are the majority and minority leaders from the PA House and Senate. Philadelphia’s Democratic Rep. Joanna McClinton will make history as the first person of color to serve on the LRC, and she’ll join Sen. Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland Co.) as the first two women on the commission. (Sen. Jay Costa, D- Allegheny Co., and Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R- Centre Co., will also serve.)
Since our first public mapping competition in 2018, we’ve seen over 6,000 Pennsylvanians attempt to map Pennsylvania, with over 1,400 completed entries. These mappers, ranging in age from 13 to septuagenarians, have proven they are ready, willing and able to take the lead on this core task of democracy.
Those four are tasked with appointing the fifth and final LRC member, the commission’s chair. The two Republicans and two Democrats have until April 30th to choose who could ostensibly be the tie-breaking vote on which maps PA’s state senators and representatives are elected for the next decade. If they can’t come to an agreement, the State Supreme Court will make the pick.
In the five previous redistricting cycles, the court has chosen the chair four times. And in 2011, the Republican majority on the court selected a former Republican Superior Court judge. The final maps that were passed were technically bipartisan (Democratic Rep. Frank Dermody voted for the final plan), but they were later overturned by the State Supreme Court due to excessive splitting of counties and municipalities among districts. (See our video about citizen hero Amanda Holt, the lead plaintiff in that case.)
And as subsequent elections played out over the decade, it became clear that PA’s legislative districts were a pretty notable partisan gerrymander as well.
Fast forward 10 years. Now, Pennsylvanians are paying attention. The very first thing we can do is focus on who will serve as the chair of the LRC. This person will set the tone for how redistricting will play out in the commonwealth in 2021.
Over 1,300 Pennsylvanians signed Draw the Lines’ petition requesting that the LRC adopt a public application process for its chair. We applaud the LRC’s decision to open the process up; it is one we’ve been advocating for. And now we want you to apply to serve. We’ve even drafted an ideal position description and posted the job on LinkedIn.
I can think of no finer group of potential applicants than the type of Pennsylvanians who have done the work themselves and wrestled with the different mapping criteria to be considered. The LRC chair must, above all else, be able to put the interests of Pennsylvania’s voters ahead of those of elected officials and parties. Thousands of people have already demonstrated their capacity for this.
In 2011, the LRC held public hearings where they interviewed the only 13 candidates who applied. The LRC even held public meetings to hear from them. However, they didn’t agree on a consensus choice, and the Court then selected somebody from outside that list.
I am encouraging all Pennsylvanians to throw your hat into the ring in 2021. Surely, not every applicant will make the LRC’s final shortlist. But, it’s clear that far more than 13 people will apply this time. A robust pool of candidates not only gives the LRC viable names to consider, but also demonstrates that people are already paying attention to the process and they are ready to make their voices heard when the maps are drawn later this year.
2021 is a hugely consequential year for Pennsylvania politics. Be a part of it.
David Thornburgh is President/CEO of Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan civic organization that advances representative, ethical and effective government in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania through citizen engagement and public policy advocacy.photo by League of Women Voters via Flickr