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.