How Jay Costa wants to fix Pa.’s gerrymandered congressional districts

“I believe that most folks object to the manner that congressional districts are drawn,” the state senator from Allegheny County said.

Pennsylvania's congressional boundaries

Pennsylvania's congressional boundaries

Department of the Interior - National Atlas of the United States
Sarah Anne Hughes

Advocates for redistricting reform won the first battle: They got people talking about it.

Now comes the hard part. The 2020 census is right around the corner, and with it, the redrawing of the boundaries of Pennsylvania’s legislative and congressional districts.

There are a number of bills already under consideration that take these processes out of the hands of politicians and put them into the hands of average citizens. State Sen. Lisa Boscola has introduced legislation that would create an 11-person panel to draw both sets of boundaries, a proposal that has bipartisan support. The bill also has the backing of Fair Districts PA, a nonpartisan project of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania that supports giving redistricting power to an independent commission.

But that legislation would require a constitutional amendment, and state Sen. Jay Costa knows the clock is ticking. The Allegheny County Democrat isn’t sure the legislature will advance Boscola’s bill, which is why he plans to introduce his own legislation to create an independent commission to draw congressional districts.

“I believe that most folks object to the manner that congressional districts are drawn,” he told The Incline, adding that this is the type of gerrymandering where you see boundaries that “snake across three different counties.”

He said “people would like to see us put together an independent commission,” and, with limited time to amend the state constitution, a group devoted to redrawing congressional boundaries is the “next best alternative.”

The drawing of the boundaries that determine state senate and state house seats is done by Republican and Democrat leaders from the legislature with an appointee of the state Supreme Court. Congressional redistricting, on the other hand, is done through legislation that needs the governor’s signature.

Costa’s bill would create a congressional redistricting panel of five randomly selected people: two Democrats, two Republicans and one person who isn’t registered to either party. They would be vetted by the secretary of the Commonwealth to ensure that, among other things, they haven’t sought or have been elected or appointed to government offices. His legislation wouldn’t require a constitutional amendment.

The proposed commission “takes [redistricting] out of the hands of elected officials,” Costa said, which is important as “there are some who believe the drawing of the congressional lines is purely a political process.”

“It was in 2010,” he added.

At that point, Republicans controlled both chambers of the state legislature and held the governorship. The result was a heavily gerrymandered map that benefited Republicans 13 seats to five.

Pennsylvania is poised to lose yet another congressional seat after the 2020 census, which means the next redraw is even more important for Democrats. But even if Costa’s legislation doesn’t pass, there may be one key difference this time around: a Democratic governor.

Emphasis on may.

“If Tom Wolf wins, when we do the congressional redistricting there will be some level of balance,” Costa said of the impending 2018 race. “If Tom Wolf doesn’t win, the Republican-controlled general assembly and house —which we’re likely to have — means 10 more years of the way the Republicans would draw the maps to their advantage.”

That sense of urgency is driving Costa’s legislation. As Senate minority leader, Costa said the general assembly’s current makeup — with large Republican majorities in both chambers — doesn’t allow for compromise or bipartisan work.

Many Allegheny County Democrats — and at least one Republican — support redistricting reform. In the house, 12 representatives, including Republican Hal English, are co-sponsoring a companion bill to Boscola’s legislation. In the Senate, Wayne Fontana is backing Boscola’s bill, while Costa isn’t.

Part of that is feasibility. To amend the state constitution, lawmakers need to pass a bill during two consecutive sessions. The proposal then goes to the voters for a referendum. Costa also said he doesn’t agree with parts of Boscola’s bill. He said party registration and performance “must be part of the conversation” and that there’s no language in the bill about the “random nature of selecting people who should serve.”

He couldn’t speak to which lawmakers will co-sponsor his legislation or its chances of getting through both chambers.

“My expectations is they won’t co sponsor it,” Costa said of Republicans. But he added that, if you believe in redistricting reform, his bill is “worthy of conversation.” A speaker from Fair Districts PA will help facilitate part of that conversation tonight at City of Asylum on the North Side.

“The way we do it now,” Costa said of redistricting, “it’s purely based on who holds the majority of power.”