STATE—After a nine-month investigation into the state of Pennsylvania's federal voting districts, the 13-member, bipartisan Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission released a final report last Thursday, August 29, with recommendations to improve Congressional redistricting in the Commonwealth.

After a series of nine public meetings across the state, the commission recommended the Pennsylvania Legislature create an 11-member citizens commission to develop the maps which divide Pennsylvania into its 18 United States Congressional Districts.

These maps would then be approved by the Pennsylvania legislature before being adopted.

The proposed citizens commission would be comprised of ten members appointed by Pennsylvania's legislative leaders and one appointed by the governor.

According to a Pennsylvania Department of State (DOS) press release, “Republican and Democratic legislative leaders would each appoint five members, including two from the opposing political party. The governor would appoint the 11th member, a non-voting chairperson.

“To further reduce partisanship on the commission, anyone who has held an elected federal, state or judicial office, or has been employed in support of such a public official, or has registered as a lobbyist, would be ineligible to be a commission member.”

With a proposal made, it is now left to the Pennsylvania General Assembly to decide whether or not it will draft and pass legislation to address the matter when both houses reconvene later this month.

In devising the structure of this citizens commission, the redistricting reform commission reviewed similar models in Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio and Utah.

“This report is a product of the most extensive public conversation ever held with Pennsylvania citizens about the issue of redistricting,” said David Thornburgh, commission chairman and president and CEO of the non-profit Committee of Seventy. “What did we hear? That Pennsylvanians are hungry for change, and for a less partisan, more transparent, and more responsive process for drawing election maps. My fellow Commissioners are proud of our contribution and trust it offers useful guidance to the Governor and the leadership of the General Assembly as they take up this issue later this fall.”

The Wayne Independent reached out to the area's state legislators regarding the proposal, but did not receive comment by deadline Wednesday afternoon.

Commission composition

The Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission was formed last year by executive order from Governor Tom Wolf “...to explore ways Pennsylvania could curb gerrymandering and make redistricting fairer and nonpartisan,” states a DOS release.

The commission is comprised of former Congressman Charlie Dent, Dr. Lee Ann Banaszak, Penn State University; Dr. Damary Bonilla-Rodriguez, Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs; Susan Carty, President, League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania; Kathy Dahlkemper, Erie County Executive; Amanda Holt, Lehigh County Commissioner; Rev. Robert Johnson, Tindley Temple United Methodist Church; Sharmain Matlock-Turner, President, Urban Affairs Coalition; Dr. Wesley Pegden, Carnegie Mellon University; State Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa; State House Minority Leader Frank Dermody; and Jessica Myers, Department of State.

There were two vacant seats on the commission, reserved for the Senate and House majority leaders. According to the commission report, the majority leaders declined to nominate members to these positions.

The problem at hand

Wolf issued the executive order to create the redistricting commission last November after holding a listening tour in response to the 2018 Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling which ordered the district maps from 2011 to be redrawn.

New district maps took effect during the last election cycle when all of Wayne, Pike and Lackawanna counties, and parts of Luzerne and Monroe counties, were joined into Pennsylvania's 8th Congressional District.

Legislative districts will be redrawn again in 2021, following the 2020 Census.

Under Pennsylvania's current model, incumbent politicians in the General Assembly redraw the district maps every ten years following the release of new Census data.

Citizens groups, notably Fair Districts PA, have called for map-drawing policy changes to mitigate the perception of Pennsylvania as one of the most gerrymandered states in the country.

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing legislative districts to divide voters in a way which favors one political party and hinders another.

This can lead to voter populations of a particular affiliation or demographic being either broken up and placed in many districts, known as “cracking,” or crammed together in as few districts as possible, known as “packing.”

This minimizes the influence voters from those targeted affiliations or demographics have come election time.

Groups like Fair Districts PA have called for citizen commissions to formulate the maps in an effort in increase impartiality, transparency and accountability in the redistricting process.

—Information from a release was used in this story.