Testimony on Citizen Engagement in the Redistricting Process
Committee of Seventy Logo
English Arabic Chinese (Simplified) French Spanish Vietnamese

Testimony on Citizen Engagement in the Redistricting Process

Draw the Lines PA
Citizen Engagement in the Redistricting Process
Written Testimony for the PA Redistricting Reform Commission

June 12, 2019

My name is Chris Satullo.  For the last two years, I’ve been project director of Draw the Lines PA, a nonpartisan, statewide initiative of the Committee of Seventy.

Our mission is to show that the people of Pennsylvania are ready, willing and able to take on a core task of democracy: drawing election maps. And to prove that, given the chance, they’ll do it better than those who have been doing it, the politicians and partisan operatives.

To that end, we’ve held two public mapping competitions, using District Builder, a data-rich online mapping tool designed by Azavea, a Philadelphia software firm. In the last nine months, more than 2,600 people have signed onto District Builder to try their hand at drawing a congressional map of PA. They’ve worked on more than 5,300 maps, resulting in 659 valid contest entries.

I’m one of two living humans who’s looked at all of those 600-plus maps. (The other is my colleague Justin Villere, who spoke at the commission’s Philadelphia hearing.)

So, with some authority I can tell you this about those maps.  More than 500 of them are, by the eye test and by accepted mapping metrics, clearly better than the map produced in Harrisburg in 2011.   

The case has been powerfully made: Given the chance, the tools and the data, regular folks from around PA (some of them as young as 14) will seize the chance to draw a map. And they’ll  do it well enough to explode any rhetoric about maps needing to be done by experts and insiders.  That claim is just a self-interested canard.

I want to stress to you today a key point that has emerged from our work with these citizen mappers, one too often lost in the clouds of learned discussion about efficiency ratios, wasted votes and fairness algorithms.

Challenged to draw an election map, the bulk of ordinary citizens do the work guided by a sense of fairness, geographic common-sense and respect for the stated rules. In other words, the last thing they ever would set out to create is a highly partisan gerrymander.

So much effort in the redistricting debate recently has gone into devising some clear, incontrovertible statistical metric to pinpoint when a map goes over the line into excessive gerrymandering.  I get why. Much of this effort is intended to persuade a U.S. Supreme Court to do something about a clear and present danger to democracy.

But isn’t obvious it that the nation’s high court has failed to articulate a legal standard for gerrymandering not because it’s impossible, but instead because it really, really doesn’t want to?

My point is:  If you have ordinary voters holding the mouse (as they clearly are capable of doing) that whole complicated quest for the perfect metric to define excessive gerrymandering becomes nearly beside the point, a nice to have, not a must have.

You see, the maps you would get from any well-formed panel of citizens would not come within miles of violating such a metric.

I want to circle back in a second to what I mean by “well-formed,” but first some data from the Draw the Lines mappers that backs up the claim I just made.

Each DTL mapper is asked to pick one to three goals (from a list of nine) as the priorities for a given map.  Taken as a whole, these choices offer a useful peek at what goals would guide the mouse were Pennsylvania voters taking on the task for real.

Toting up the results from both the fall and spring contests, we found that the No. 1 priority of both sets of mappers was equal population. In other words, strong fidelity to the constitutional principle of “one person, one vote.”  That was picked 489 times.

Nearly tied for second, with 330 and 329 mentions, were compactness and contiguity.  In other words, voters believe Donald Duck should never again kick Goofy, particularly not using so slender a thread as the parking lot of Creed’s Steak and Seafood House.

Competitive elections  came in next at 244.  Communities of interest was the only other goal that reached triple digits.   Party advantage – in other words, I want a map that’s good for my team – was picked only 40 times.  Incumbent protection, only 5.

Permit me to comment of two preoccupations of the redistricting reform debate in our state that strike me as off the mark, based on the data and the maps emerging from Draw the Lines.

One, the notion that political or election data should be excluded from map-making strikes me, speaking as an individual, as wrong-headed.   For a substantial number of voters, their definition of a “fair district” is one that is regularly competitive, where each major party has a fair shot at winning each time out.   Without that data, you could draw maps that look compact and pleasing, but whose real-world impact would be to lock in lopsided election results.

Remember, the ultimate point of election maps is to conduct elections. Why would you bar yourself from glimpsing how your proposal would affect the real-world outcomes?

Similarly, some of the steps proposed to scrub a citizens panel of all political experience or leanings strike me as excessive, in fact, Rube Goldbergian.

True, our problem in recent decades has been an excessive desire for partisan advantage, carried out with diabolical precision due to sophisticated software powered by Big Data.

But the best cure for excess in one direction is not excess in the other. It’s a carefully calibrated balance.  Here’s what I mean.

So much of the conversation about reform in our state has been framed as “California or bust.”

Either we get a fully independent, omnipotent citizens commission – selected through a process of huge complexity to root out any taint of political leanings – or we’re doomed.

I don’t believe that.  I know Pennsylvania is not California.  And the differences are why I live here, not, God forbid, there.  I’d rather see my state design a process of its own that achieves the maximum progress possible within the constitutional and political realities that confront us.

To me, Pennsylvania’s new way of doing maps should have three touchstone principles, befitting the birthplace of the Constitution:

  • Trust the people.

  • Maximize the sunlight.

  • Give lawmakers their proper say in the outcome. If you observe the first two principles well, no great harm will come from this third.  

By trust the people, I mean this: You don’t need to overcomplicate the process of picking members of a commission or over-specify how they go about their business once picked.  Just let the commission members know the broad goals of their work and the legal guardrails that have been placed on it. Let their diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints bump up against each other, creating a candid, robust dialogue.  That will suffice to prevent a stampede to a partisan result.

In other words, just like James Madison planned it.

Maximize the sunlight.   Create robust and extended public comment periods, both before and after the commission produces maps.  Ensure transparency and public availability of the data to be used in mapping. Set up a free, online public tool that citizens can use to submit testimony in the form of maps.  Get the hearing process into the 21st century, using social media and texts to notify the public of hearings and using apps and video conferencing tools to let them testify remotely.

Remember this: Every well-done citizen map submitted becomes part of a guardrail channeling the final result in a good direction.  Every citizen mapped formally entered into testimony is a piece of evidence that can be used to overturn in court a map that ignores a public consensus.

Finally, principle 3, give politicians their proper say.  And not just because they’ll never vote for a system that aggressively excludes them. Ultimate constitutional accountability does reside with them, though nothing prevents them from delegating the work of drafting to voters.

Our problem has been a system where this legislative power was exercised without accountability, where only a select few self-interested lawmakers had the real power to draw the lines, without input or correction short of a painful, tumultuous legal fight.

So, yes, give the lawmakers a final say, but only over a menu of choices generated by a citizens panel.   Again, guardrails.

Here’s one way it could work:

Create a 15-member citizens commission. Select 11 members from a pool of volunteers, with some vetting to make sure none are political wolves in sheep’s clothing but avoiding excessive restrictions so that no person who’s ever shown an active interest in politics is excluded.   Let the caucus leaders get four appointees – just no active office-holders or state or county party officials.

For Congress, the panel would create, debate and approve at least two and no more than four proposed maps, each needing to be approved by a supermajority of nine. These would be forwarded to the General Assembly, which would have a month to approve one.  It could approve one while sending it back to the commission with suggested technical fixes, which the commission could accept or reject, piecemeal.

If the General Assembly couldn’t approve one of the options provided by the commission, the commission would determine the map by ranked-choice voting on the options.

For legislative maps, the commission would operate on an advisory basis to the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, submitting options for House and Senate maps.   Perhaps, if the LRC rejects or ignores all the suggestions, the LRC could be required to attach a written explanation to the map it does approve, explaining why it thinks its version is superior.

Again, all this would produce a robust evidentiary basis for court appeals of the approved map.   Again, this prospect would serve as a guardrail reminding the LRC of the risks of producing an extreme result, whether tinged deep blue or deep red.

In conclusion, if followed, these three principles – Trust the People, Maximize Sunlight, Give Lawmakers Their Proper Say –would give Pennsylvania far fairer election maps than it has had for decades.

And of these three, I would say that, based on the evidence of Draw the Lines, the most revolutionary and clarifying of them all is the first.

Just trust the people. For a change. They will not let you down.

Thank you.