HARRISBURG – A redistricting reform commission report released Thursday calls on the General Assembly to rethink the way it redraws political boundaries
The report proposes the state form an 11-member redistricting commission that would develop three suggested maps from which the General Assembly would choose one. Ten of the commission members would be appointed by the General Assembly and the 11th person would be appointed by the governor, but not have a vote.
“This report is a product of the most extensive public conversation ever held with Pennsylvania citizens about the issue of redistricting,” said David Thornburgh, commission chairman and president and CEO of the non-profit Committee of Seventy. “What did we hear? That Pennsylvanians are hungry for change, and for a less partisan, more transparent, and more responsive process for drawing election maps.”
The commission that completed the study was appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf and Republicans who hold the majority in both chambers of the General Assembly did not take part in the process.
“Gov. Wolf continues to support transitioning redistricting to a citizens commission and he appreciates the suggestions from the commission’s report,” said J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for the governor. “He thanks all members of the commission for their service.”
Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, said the commission’s suggestion looks similar to a proposal that passed the Senate in 2018, but died without action in the state House.
“At first glance, the only difference seems to be tweaking the strict requirements established by the Senate to prevent undue political influence from tainting the process,” she said. “The momentum of last Session to advance redistricting and reapportionment reforms passed by Senate Republicans has been lost due to a number a factors including the Governor’s preference to go it alone with his Executive Order as opposed to providing meaningful input.”
Thornburgh is scheduled to testify about the commission’s work and its recommendation at a Sept. 18 hearing before the House state government committee, said state Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming County, the chairman of that committee.
Everett said that the hearing will also include testimony from the National Conference of State Legislatures, to get perspective about what kinds of redistricting reforms have been enacted in other states. Only eight states --Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, and Washington -- have commissions like the one proposed by Thornburgh’s group and touted by advocacy groups like Fair Districts PA, he said.
Everett said there will be time for the General Assembly to enact legislation to change the redistricting process before the maps are redrawn after the 2020 Census. But it’s far from clear that there’s sufficient interest in the Legislature to do it, he said.
“Nothing is pre-ordained,” he said.
The commission held nine public meetings in Altoona, Bethlehem, Erie, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Reading, Wilkes-Barre, and Williamsport. More than 600 people attended the evening meetings and an additional 1,000 comments were submitted online.
Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA, said those public hearings reinforced what her group has been saying for years.
“Pennsylvania citizens want something different,” she said. “That came through really loudly. Though I could have told them that.”
The proposal raises questions about the independence of the group if all the voting members are appointed by the General Assembly, she said.
Everett said it’s also not clear how the commission as it’s proposed, would reflect the interests of people who don’t belong to either major political party.