The once-in-a-decade redrawing of the state’s legislative districts is an inherently political process since four of the five commission members charged with the redistricting are elected lawmakers. But drawing fair districts is still an achievable goal if public input is prioritized, which is the goal of two of the state’s largest advocacy groups.

Representatives of Fair Districts PA and Common Cause of Pennsylvania recently provided public testimony to the five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission at a meeting in Harrisburg.

The message was clear: If the state is to end the previous practice of gerrymandering districts to suit political agendas, then public comment and suggestions must be a driving force in deciding the outline of the 50 state Senate and 203 state House districts.

Improved public participation in the redistricting process has been the goal of the two groups after losing the battle to establish an independent citizens commission that would draw congressional and legislative districts.

So far the Reapportionment Commission, chaired by University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg, has held four public meetings, two of which were Zoom meetings in which members of the public could register to offer testimony. More meetings are planned but not yet scheduled.

Mr. Nordenberg has promised a fair and transparent process in drawing the legislative districts, and both Fair Districts and Common Cause plan to hold him to that, as they should.

Among the suggestions from the groups that the commission should consider are a paid advertising campaign to educate the public about redistricting and how they can participate; and town hall meetings held by legislators to provide updates and hear comments.

Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA, said her group also is finishing a map-drawing contest in which participants are asked to draw district boundaries based on compactness, contiguity and “avoiding partisan bias.”

The group plans to share the maps — which she said good mappers often complete in days — for review and submit them as testimony to the commission as a “benchmark” for any proposed maps.

These are the types of public participation in the process that the commission should use to guide its decisions. The census data needed to begin the process will be available later this month, and more public input based on those numbers should be encouraged.

For too long, the state’s legislative districts have been drawn to protect incumbents and the political party in power.

Fair Districts PA and Common Cause have stepped up the effort in recent years to put an end to gerrymandering that often divided neighborhoods and communities with shared interests.

The opportunity for the public to have a voice in the decision-making is part of the Reapportionment Commission’s goal. It’s an opportunity that must not be wasted.

— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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