Pennsylvania's new congressional boundaries

HARRISBURG — For a brief moment this year, it seemed that maybe, possibly, redistricting reform was actually going to happen in Harrisburg.

In January, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of those who called Pennsylvania’s congressional map an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, and eventually directed a third party to draw a new one. The ruling re-energized redistricting advocates, who pushed for the creation of a citizen commission to draw new boundaries after the 2020 census.

That didn’t occur. And while voters across Pennsylvania will cast ballots in 18 rejiggered congressional districts this November, the state’s legislative boundaries remain the same.

So what happens next?

With just two months left this session, Speaker Mike Turzai of Allegheny County — somewhat unexpectedly — told the Philadelphia Inquirer his office is drafting a bill that would draw the state’s congressional boundaries in a way similar to legislative ones.

His proposal comes as advocates for reform have launched the Draw the Lines PA campaign, which aims to show regular Pennsylvanians how the boundary sausage gets made.

New ideas for old problems

Details are currently scarce about Turzai’s proposal (his office did not immediately respond to request for comment), but his legislation would apparently replace the current congressional boundary process — the General Assembly passes a bill, the governor signs it — with something closer to how legislative boundaries are drawn.

How that works: To account for population changes, every 10 years the majority and minority leaders of each chamber plus a fifth person — either agreed upon by the four or appointed by the state Supreme Court — draw new districts for state representatives and senators.

According to the Inquirer, Turzai’s bill will “likely … stipulate no member of the legislative commission can also serve on the congressional commission.”

That’s essentially what Minority Leader Jay Costa proposed last year. The Allegheny County Democrat’s bill would appoint five randomly selected people to a congressional commission: two from each of the major parties and a fifth who doesn’t belong to either. Like Turzai’s legislation, Costa’s would not require a constitutional amendment — meaning it could be in place before the boundaries are redrawn after 2020.

Costa’s bill has support from Democrats as well as one Republican (John Rafferty of suburban Philly), but it has not moved from the State Government committee since its introduction last year.

“I’m glad Representative Turzai has come around on this proposal,” Costa said through a spokesperson. “I hope his announcement yesterday means that he will be supporting my bill, or offering companion legislation in the House.”

So you think you can map?

While on its face a bipartisan commission may seem like an equitable way to draw boundaries, there have been issues with the Legislative Reapportionment Commission in the past.

The legislative map drawn in 2011 was the subject of multiple appeals, including from Senate Democrats. But it was actually a map created by Amanda Holt, a piano teacher and Republican committeewoman, that convinced the Supreme Court the commission-drawn version unnecessarily split municipalities and violated the state constitution.

Holt is one of the inspirations for Draw the Lines PA, a project of the good-government group Committee of Seventy that aims to show just how simple it is to draw a fair congressional map.

Holt first drew her map with a pencil and paper. Draw the Lines’ online tool DistrictBuilder makes the process simpler than that — but its creators still recommend reading a detailed user guide and putting aside a few hours.

Project director Chris Satullo said the tool is targeted at three groups:

  • Members of the grassroots group Fair Districts PA, who’ve been waiting more than a year to get their hands on it
  • “A certain geek population who loves this kind of stuff” (one person has already made *10*, according to Satullo)
  • Digital natives who “are very concerned about the way democracy has been going”

To sweeten the deal, Draw the Lines PA is offering cash prizes to Pennsylvanians who submit maps during the first of several planned contests. The project is also hosting events across the state to promote the tool.

Satullo, a veteran newsman who previously worked for the Inquirer and WHYY, said Turzai’s proposal indicates that Republicans have some sense that redistricting is an issue that’s sticking with voters. From a “purely pragmatic” point of view, it’s in their best interest to recognize citizen involvement in the process, he said.

He’s confident that not only will citizens participate in Draw the Lines PA but that they’re going to nail it. He predicted that soon “a 12-year-old is going to throw out a better congressional map than in 2011.”

If the project ramps up in the way he hopes, Satullo said Draw the Lines PA could create an army of “10,000 capable citizen mappers.” Even in a worst-case scenario — if there’s no change to the process in Harrisburg — Satullo said those citizen mappers could potentially become 10,000 plaintiffs to challenge a partisan or unconstitutional map.

“They’re gonna know people are watching,” he said.

Draw the Lines PA is nonpartisan project, although some conservative lawmakers have attacked redistricting reform as supporting Democratic aims. Satullo said he’d be working on the same project in Dem-heavy states like Illinois or Maryland.

“This is not about … turning red into blue,” he said. “It’s about who’s in the room and who’s outside the room.”

Inside the room where it happens are a handful of legislative leaders. Outside? Everyone else. In the past, it wasn’t practical for ordinary citizens to draw boundaries, he said, but with advancements in technology not only is that possible — it’s valuable.

Since winning in 2012, Holt has continued to write about redistricting reform and is now on the Draw the Lines steering committee. She said a commission like the one Turzai’s proposing has the benefit of more public engagement, but that without “measurable standards” it’s unlikely the maps will improve.

In Pennsylvania, keeping counties and municipalities whole is “a good, neutral standard to use,” she said.

Draw the Lines PA will play no role in lobbying for specific solutions. It inherently advocates “the general position that voters should have a larger role” in the redistricting process, Satullo said, but what form that takes is “entirely up to them.”

“We just want them to feel like they can make a difference,” he said, “that their voices will matter.”

Sarah Anne Hughes is based in Harrisburg for The Incline and Billy Penn as the sites’ first-ever state capitol reporter and is a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a new initiative that seeks...