Will PA lawmakers live up to their redistricting transparency promises? Doubt is creeping in

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KEYSTONE CROSSROADS — House GOP lawmakers’ new congressional-map-drawing website was designed to add transparency to Pennsylvania’s redistricting process, allowing constituents to pitch their own ideas about where district lines should lie.

But for most of November, it didn’t seem to be working, raising concerns from advocates as lawmakers prepare for a once-a-decade redistricting process that has a significant impact on the commonwealth’s balance of political power.

Last week, a month after lawmakers introduced the tool, not a single constituent map was shown on the website.

Carol Kuniholm, who heads the group Fair Districts PA and advocates for redistricting transparency, confirmed Thursday that she and “quite a few” others had submitted maps, but that there had been “no acknowledgment that [a map had] been submitted and no way to see what maps have been submitted.”

After a few days of Kuniholm and other fair map advocates asking for an explanation — and a request for comment from WHYY News — 14 maps popped up on the site Thursday afternoon. Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), who manages much of the redistricting process in his chamber and spearheaded the constituent feedback effort, didn’t comment on what the issue was.

Kuniholm herself thinks it could just be a glitch. But she also says the issue speaks to her larger concerns about Pennsylvania’s redistricting process: Despite promises that the process will be transparent and dictated by public feedback, there’s no mechanism in state law to mandate or standardize it.

“They may have people offer comment, but there’s absolutely no requirement that they use the comment and no requirement that they share the comment,” she said. “So absolutely, we are concerned that the public input is not going to be part of the process.”

The House GOP caucus presented the mapping portal as a key part of the caucus’s plan to create Pennsylvania’s “most transparent” congressional-map-redraw ever. The step was necessary, lawmakers have said, because political mapping is deeply fraught in Pennsylvania.

Map proposals must be passed by the House and Senate, then signed by the governor, with the state Supreme Court intervening in case of intractable deadlock. The map that results from this process will play a significant role in determining who holds power in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation for the next decade.

Historically, lawmakers have sought to bend district lines to suit their political priorities.

The last time they did a scheduled redraw, in 2011, Republicans controlled the process. They produced a map the state Supreme Court later threw out, declaring it unconstitutionally gerrymandered.

This year, the House, Senate, and governor are supposed to finalize a map by Jan. 24 at the latest.

So far, there’s no sign of a draft from the legislature. Time is growing short for them to collect the feedback they’ve promised.

Tim Lambert / WITF. The state Capitol building in Harrisburg. (Tim Lambert/WITF)

‘Trust in this is very, very slim’

There’s precedent for Kuniholm’s concerns about opaque, secretive congressional mapping.

In the 2011 round of redistricting, lawmakers didn’t publicize their proposed map until virtually the last minute. After months of private negotiations, House and Senate Republicans introduced and passed a draft to then-Gov. Tom Corbett in less than two weeks. He signed off on it without any hearings or public comment.

The resulting congressional districts had boundaries so convoluted that one was famously nicknamed “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.”

Republicans went on to win 13 of the commonwealth’s 18 congressional seats in the subsequent midterm election, despite only getting 49% of that year’s vote. It was this map that the State Supreme Court decided to overturn and redraw in 2018. Judges also threw out the state Senate map lawmakers produced in 2011.

Outrage over the partisanship of 2011 resulted in sustained activism over the next decade, aimed at reforming Pennsylvania’s redistricting process. But despite all those years of advocacy from Fair Districts PA and other groups, the House and Senate never passed legislation changing redistricting rules.

They remain functionally the same as they were in 2011: Lawmakers aren’t required to share their mapping rationale or hold hearings on their proposals.

“I hope they take public input seriously,” said Thomas Kutz, a Lower Allen Township Commissioner and chair of the Cumberland County Republican Party.

Kutz says the behind-the-scenes redistricting process is just as much of a black box to him as it is to most other Pennsylvanians. “I mean, it’s anyone’s guess what happens to maps,” he said.

He’s still generally optimistic about the process. He noted that unlike in 2011, the players charged with drawing a map are no longer controlled by a single party. Though the House and Senate remain GOP-dominated, the governor and a majority of the Supreme Court are Democrats.

Kutz said he was pleased to discover House Republicans’ new mapping tool, and was one of about a dozen people who sent one in.

“The way I think about it, if there’s five people in the room drawing the map and they’re all from different corners of the state, there might be parts of the state they don’t know,” Kutz said. He noted that where he lives, on the western shore of the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, several counties converge and can make it tricky for map drawers to decide where to divide communities.

“I think it’s helpful to be able to have those voices,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll consider [them].”

Like Kutz, Kuniholm says she thinks this year’s round of redistricting will likely be more balanced.

She gives credit to lawmakers’ efforts to demystify things. Initiatives have included House and Senate Republicans, who control the legislature, and a commission formed by Gov. Tom Wolf holding hearings around the state to collect public feedback. Like House Republicans, Wolf’s office is also hosting a map submission website.

“We will have far more fair maps,” she said.

But she still doesn’t think a process where fairness hinges on partisan balance is good enough.

“Trust in this is very, very slim,” she said. “The past is prelude to the present. There is no reason for hope that they will be incorporating public comment.”

Currently, there are only a few hard standards in Pennsylvania redistricting.

Districts must be of about equal size. This year’s map must axe a district because of population shifts, and, thanks to federal legal precedent, it can’t dilute voters’ voices on the basis of race.

The 2018 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision that threw out the 2011 map also held that congressional districts should be compact and contiguous, and shouldn’t divide municipalities and wards unless absolutely necessary. Lawmakers are expected to follow that guidance.

Earlier this year, reformers supported legislation that would have created a clearer, more concrete set of guidelines.

The bill would have created a schedule for public hearings, release of lawmakers’ draft maps, and gathering of feedback every step of the way. Plus, it required that there be no unnecessary municipal divisions or intentional dilution of minority voters’ electoral power.

GOP lawmakers gutted the version of the bill that was in the Senate, replacing it with their own, softer language. The original remains stalled in the House.

Min Xian / WPSU. Central Pennsylvania residents said they want to see communities kept intact when it comes to congressional redistricting during a listening session with Governor Tom Wolf’s Redistricting Advisory Council Monday.

A fragmented process

In August, when the Senate held the second of its three public hearings, Montgomery County resident Ruth Yeiser told senators she had a terrible time trying to figure out how to submit testimony.

Eventually, Yeisler tracked down an email address for a Senate staffer, who explained that submission details were on the GOP caucus’s website. She was still confused, and ended up emailing her thoughts to him directly.

“It would never occur to me to look at partisan web pages for information about hearings, nor would it occur to me to submit testimony to a partisan web page,” she wrote. “I don’t think a partisan entity should be responsible for collecting or curating testimony.”

Because there is no requirement for hearings or public comment, each faction involved in making the congressional map took its own approach to getting feedback.

The GOP-controlled House State Government Committee, which drives the process in that chamber, opted to hold a series of hearings around the state, beginning in July: one to introduce the process, another to hear from experts, eight to collect feedback from different regions of the state, and a final one in late October to discuss final census data.

The Senate’s State Government Committee held three of its own hearings — two in Harrisburg and one in Philadelphia. And Wolf formed his own commission of political science and mapmaking experts to do hearings of their own; they held eight in various regions, and another virtual one, and issued a report to the legislature detailing their proposed redistricting priorities and principles.

To Yeiser, a self-described political moderate who got involved in redistricting reform advocacy after attending an informational meeting in 2017, and now volunteers as an outreach coordinator for Fair Districts PA, it all seems needlessly convoluted.

She said lawmakers should make their mapping criteria public. If they “were to come out and say, ‘These are our criteria — minimal deviation [in population between districts] and no county splits, or no municipal splits,’” then at least the public would understand what is on the table.

But as it stands, she feels like she’s sending testimony into a void.

“I can’t imagine that this is anything more than show,” she said.

Lawmakers and staffers have confirmed that portions of the map are already finished.

Sen. Dave Argall (R-Schuylkill), who chairs his chamber’s State Government Committee and has a key role in the drawing process, said that he has picked up some “good ideas from citizen mappers.” He’s particularly taken with maps that prioritize splitting as few municipalities as possible — an approach that studies have shown tends to create GOP-friendly districts in Pennsylvania.

In the Senate, both Argall and Democratic leaders have said they’re having productive talks. Grove, Argall’s GOP counterpart in the House, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment about how the process is going there, and how he is using constituent feedback.

Argall said he would ideally “prefer to have the bill introduced, have it subject to public hearings, review any possible changes that have been suggested, and get it to the governor’s desk by the deadline.”

He won’t promise anything, though. Negotiations can always break down, he said, so there remains a possibility that Republicans could repeat their 2011 approach: jamming a map through the legislature at the last minute.

“That’s certainly not the way I want to conduct business,” he said. “[But] there’s no guarantee.”

 

Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaborative of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY. This story originally appeared at https://whyy.org/programs/keystone-crossroads.