How will redistricting work in Pennsylvania following the state Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on gerrymandering? We’re about to find out
The bottom line for most redistricting reform proponents is this: Lawmakers can’t be trusted to draw their own districts. The incentives are so skewed in favor of protecting their own jobs, maximizing their party’s potential to gain and hold power and keeping their opponents on their heels, that it’s all but certain they’ll game the system. Maybe that’s not the problem, though.
“In my mind, we are totally capable of drawing fair districts,” said Rep. Garth Everett. “We just were never required to.” But the ground has shifted. “That time-honored tradition of the majority party being able to gerrymander their districts is probably a time that’s gone by,” said Everett, chairman of the House State Government Committee.
When the Lycoming County Republican took over the committee in January, he instantly became one of the state’s most influential voices at one of the most crucial times for one of the most far-reaching decisions facing lawmakers in Harrisburg. Any redistricting reform push that hopes to change state law has to get past him first.
And the clock is ticking. Reform proponents have spent years building a groundswell of public support. Gov. Tom Wolf ’s commission on the topic released its long-awaited recommendations Aug. 29, and legislators are introducing last-chance proposals to retool a foundational element of the democratic process that will shape Pennsylvania for a decade.
They have about six months to get it done.
After that, there may not be time to make changes before the census wraps up sometime next year, Everett said. And a map designed to cement one party’s majority might not fly this time, thanks to a landmark state Supreme Court ruling last year that found Pennsylvania’s gerrymandered congressional districts violated the constitution.
“I think it’s becoming clear that we should not use political demographic data as part of our decision-making process,” Everett said.
Everett scheduled a hearing on the redistricting process for Wednesday.
“I’m not going in with any preconceived conclusion as to where we’re going to end up,” Everett said. “I want to have a full conversation and educate the Legislature on what we do.”
The hearing won’t explore any single piece of legislation, Everett said, because he’s not sure lawmakers are ready for that yet.
Of the State Government Committee’s 23 members, only Everett and minority chairman Kevin Boyle, D-philadelphia, were in office during the last round of redistricting, after the 2010census.
In all, nearly half of all state legislators — 24 senators and 97 representatives — won their first terms after the current maps took effect in 2014. This will be their first redistricting. If the next maps take effect as scheduled, in 2022, half of the state’s senators — 12 Democrats and 13 Republicans — will face reelection in redrawn districts.
In addition to a witness who will explain how other states draw legislative districts, Everett’s committee will get a summary of Wolf’s Redistricting Reform Commission recommendations from the group’s chairman, David Thornburgh.
The central recommendation is to consolidate redistricting authority for both federal and state legislative districts under one 11-member commission. (Current law gives state-level redistricting authority to a fivemember commission and allows the Legislature to draw congressional districts through the normal lawmaking process.)
The commission rests on some novel infrastructure. Republican and Democratic legislative leadership would each get five appointments: two from their own party, two from the opposing party, and one independent. The governor would appoint the 11th commissioner.
New Hampshire lawmakers recently tried something similar. Their bill would have created an independent commission for which Democrats would select five Republican members and Republicans would pick five Democrats. Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed the bill Aug. 9, writing in his veto message that the “drafters of our constitution were very wise to vest (redistricting) authority in the people’s elected representatives, who are accountable to the voters every two years.”
That’s a central argument of those in favor of the status quo. But critics say the accountability argument falls apart in an era in which computers allow legislators to tailor districts to their own politics.
“The people should be picking their representatives rather than the representatives picking their people,” said Rep. Tom Murt, R-montgomery County. Murt co-sponsored a pair of reform bills with Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-northampton County, that would hand redistricting over to a group of 11 voters picked through a process combining elements of random selection, partisan balance and demographic diversity.
Pennsylvania’s current partisan-heavy method comes from the 1968 Constitutional Convention. But there’s evidence that legislators back then were actually trying to remove politics from the process, Thornburgh said.
Take the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, which draws state House and Senate districts. Caucus leaders each pick one member. If those four can’t agree on a chair — and they never do — the state Supreme Court chooses the tiebreaker. Since the justices run as Republicans or Democrats, that selection has its own partisan baggage.
But one of the major pushes at the 1968 convention was to shift selection of judges from elections to a merit-based system, and supporters of that shift were on the verge of winning until the very end, Thornburgh said.
“The prevailing assumption was that we were going to have a merit-selection system,” Thornburgh said. So, he said, it stands to reason that when the drafters of Pennsylvania’s new constitution gave the state Supreme Court ultimate authority to appoint the tiebreaker, they thought they would be handing that power to a group insulated from politics.
His reading of that political moment echoes in the redistricting reform report: The 11th member of their proposed commission would be nonvoting and would have the role of broker between the sides.
“In these overheated partisan times, people are getting tired of, ‘I have five votes and you have four, so I get everything,’” Thornburgh said.
Which party has the upper hand has shifted. In 2011, Republicans controlled the House, Senate, governor’s office and had a majority on the Supreme Court, giving them sway over state and congressional redistricting. This time around, there’s a Democrat in the governor’s office and Democratic majority on the Supreme Court.
Reform advocates like Carol Kuniholm have made that point to Republicans. Kuniholm is the chair and co-founder of Fair Districts PA, a group that has worked for the last few years to build public support for getting lawmakers as far from the redistricting process as possible.
“We have talked with quite a few people who are quite excited about the opportunity to have the Democrats draw the maps in 2021,” Kuniholm said. “Given how badly they were treated over the last 20 years, despite having the majority of registered voters in the state, there’s a lot of bitterness over that, and that will certainly resurface.”
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-allegheny County, said the prospect of having his party in the driver’s seat hasn’t dissuaded him from supporting redistricting reform.
“I have been an advocate for fair, representative districts for many years. My opinion on that doesn’t change, even if (theoretically) Democrats are controlling the process,” Costa wrote in a statement emailed to The Caucus. “Voters deserve a voice in their state and federal representation, but partisan gerrymandered districts rob them of that. I will continue to fight for a more fair process, regardless of who is in the majority party in the PA Senate.”
Public pressure on state officials to take this on has increased during the past few years. By way of legislation or popular referendum, eight states have shifted at least some redistricting power from lawmakers to independent commissions since 2000.
Five of those shifts occurred last year alone, Pennsylvania’s redistricting reform commission found.
Murt, who took office in 2007, first saw the process from the inside after the 2010 census.
“The technology that is available is astounding,” Murt said. “There are electronic maps your caucus can use to show you that, if you get this particular ward, here’s the registration, here’s how many people voted for (2008 GOP presidential candidate Sen.) John Mccain.”
Murt’s district stretches from northern Philadelphia into Montgomery County, splitting Upper Dublin Twp. in its journey.
“My own district has been sliced up, gerrymandered, probably as bad as anybody’s in the commonwealth,” Murt said.
Democrats now outnumber Republicans in his district by almost 3,000 voters, according to the Department of State.
Whether Murt can overcome that gap shouldn’t be up to mapping software, he said.
“Despite all the technology that exists, if you’re not willing to knock on doors and do the grassroots stuff, maybe you should consider another career.”
‘The people should be picking their representatives rather than the representatives picking their people.’
Rep. Tom Murt R-montgomery county
William Marx points to projected images of the old congressional districts of Pennsylvania on top, and the new redrawn districts on the bottom, while standing in the classroom where he teaches civics in Pittsburgh in November.