The idea of having an independent citizens commission draw the congressional and legislative districts in Pennsylvania has died many deaths in the Republican-controlled Legislature, but lawmakers should at the very least open the redistricting process to more public scrutiny.
A concerted effort by the reform group Fair Districts PA appeared to have enough support in the Legislature in 2018 for significant change. The proposal called for district lines to be determined by an 11-member citizens commission rather than the legislators who were, in effect, voting to create their own districts. Since the move would involve a change to the state constitution, it would need passage in two legislative sessions before going to voters for approval. That plan met its demise when state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, who then chaired the House State Government Committee, effectively blocked the bill from ever coming to a vote. Par for the course for Mr. Metcalfe, who spends more energy and time posturing than working.
So the shaping of districts remains in the hands of the Legislature, which will draw the lines for congressional districts based on the results of the 2020 census; caucus leaders will appoint a commission to draw the legislative districts. The new districts would be in effect for the 2022 elections.
Absent an independent citizens commission, state lawmakers can still commit to some form of transparency in the process by adopting proposals made during the last legislative session. A proposed bill would require multiple live-streamed public hearings before and after preliminary redistricting plans are approved; create a website for data and public comment; and allow residents to submit their own maps that would be available on the public website and given consideration at public hearings.
The Legislature would still control the process, but allowing public comment and proposals gives residents an opportunity to weigh in before the district lines are finalized.
The last thing the Legislature wants is another legal challenge to the way districts are drawn, such as the 2018 state Supreme Court ruling that the congressional maps were done in violation of the state constitution. The court took the unprecedented step of creating its own map of congressional districts for the state.
David Thornburgh, son of the late Gov. Dick Thornburgh and president and CEO of the nonpartisan government reform group Committee of Seventy, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that advocacy groups opposed to the gerrymandering of districts have made it known they are keeping watch on the process.
“This is a process that has been weaponized in the past by political parties, and now the playing field is much more level because citizens have the ability to literally take the process into their own hands,” Mr. Thornburgh said.
An independent citizens commission to draw district lines may never happen in Pennsylvania — a real shame, but lawmakers owe to their constituents the opportunity to have some say in the process.
— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS