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Testimony on Citizen Participation in Congressional Redistricting

August 4, 2021

Thank you, Chairman Argall, Chairman Street, and members of the State Government committee for holding this discussion around citizen participation in the congressional redistricting process.

At the Committee of Seventy and over the past four years, we have learned a number of valuable lessons about public engagement in the issue of redistricting and the map-making process through our role in the bipartisan Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission, whose report was released in August 2019, and the Draw the Lines PA mapping competition that yielded 1,500 completed maps submitted by individuals across Pennsylvanian.

I shared some of these observations from our experiences at Seventy and Draw the Lines recently with your colleagues in the House and would highlight the following topline recommendations for you today: First, we would advise the House and Senate to work together conducting a meaningful and efficient program of public engagement that offers multiple ways for citizens to participate and that distills common themes or points of feedback for map drawers. Second, the State Government Committees should produce at least one preliminary map with adequate time for public review and feedback before voting on a final plan to send to the Governor. Third, the General Assembly should ensure that the preliminary and final mapping plans are accompanied by a narrative that explains the choices made in the map. And fourth, use a balance of common sense criteria and citizen input to inform the map.

First principle: Meaningful public engagement

Given the unprecedented level of public interest in the redistricting process, and the commitment to make this process the most transparent in history, the House and Senate State Government Committees have a great opportunity to structure high quality conversations with Pennsylvania citizens about the mapping process. To assist in that process, Seventy has drafted a Roadmap to Transparent Redistricting, attached as an appendix to this testimony. The Roadmap expands on the following core set of practices that Seventy has developed in consultation with experts in the field of civic engagement. Those practices include:

  • Holding moderated or facilitated conversations to gauge citizen input on a map or small set of maps that has already been released.

  • ​Communicating clear expectations for the role of citizen input.

  • Educating citizens before and after the conversation.

  • Asking for public input on the congressional map in its entirety but also on individual districts, focusing on what’s right, what’s wrong, and what could be improved.

  • ​Moving past sheer transparency to communicate a sense of clarity around the process—who will decide, by when, based on what.

Second principle: Ask citizens to consider a preliminary map or small set of maps

The release of a preliminary mapping plan with ample time for public comment substantially increases the quality of public input. In examining draft boundaries, Pennsylvanians can identify potential issues with proposed districts in their community, municipality or county, generating feedback of far greater specificity and usability for map makers. The importance of this step was understood by the delegates of the 1967-68 Constitutional Convention, who made sure to codify preliminary mapping in the process followed by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC).

Once the data is available, we urge the State Government Committees to release publicly at least one and not more than three preliminary congressional mapping plans; and to provide at least 30 days to receive comments and feedback from the public before moving to advance a mapping plan.

This preliminary mapping and public feedback sequence was broadly ignored in the last redistricting cycle. In the 2011 redistricting cycle, SB1249 was introduced as a placeholder on December 7, amended with proposed congressional districts on December 14, and passed the General Assembly on December 20. While there were several public hearings prior to December, those hearings were held without the benefit of a draft map to consider, which made them largely meaningless. The final map, while passed with bipartisan support, contained some of the worst gerrymanders in the country. To guarantee the most transparent congressional redistricting process in history, citizens must be able to comment on proposed boundaries before a mapping plan is presented to the General Assembly for a final vote.

Third principle: Present an accompanying narrative that explains the map

Both the preliminary map(s) and the final approved map must be accompanied by a narrative that “tells the story of the map.” This accompanying narrative should provide a description of each of the 17 districts and answer the following questions:

  • How does this map comply with the traditional redistricting standards currently set out via precedent by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court?

  • In drawing the map, how did mapmakers incorporate public feedback from the public hearings and the districts submitted by citizen mappers

Fourth principle: Use common sense criteria to draw the lines

There are multiple, valid perspectives on how a map-drawing process can be constructed and with a variety of criteria. The 1,500 maps that have been submitted to the Draw the Lines PA (DTL) competitions provide valuable insights into those perspectives, as did the thousands of public comments and survey responses received by the Redistricting Reform Commission. The following standards were agreed upon by nearly every DTL citizen mapper and reiterated by much of the public feedback to the advisory commission:

● All districts should be compact, contiguous and nearly equal in population. These traditional criteria are common in law around the country, including the PA Constitution for legislative districts drawn by the LRC. Compact districts and population equality can be quantified with several respected mathematical calculations. Contiguity simply means that districts may not be separated from themselves at any point. 

● Minimize the division of political jurisdictions. Of the comments provided to the PA Redistricting Reform Commission, splitting of counties or municipalities among multiple political districts was by far the most frequently named grievance. This seemed to be the case for two reasons: First, any Pennsylvanian can see plainly the division of their county or municipality on a map; and second, as residents of that community they likely had a sense of whether a certain division was justified by some reasonable consideration of geographic boundaries, the protection of racial or language minorities, or some other local community objective. Without any such justification, they assumed jurisdictional splits were due to a partisan or political factor.

● Protect racial and language minorities. In our diverse Commonwealth, it will remain critically important that minority communities are protected in the map-making process. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act continues to apply to congressional redistricting in every state and prevents district lines that would deny minority voters an equal opportunity “to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.” We are fortunate that this federal provision is still in effect, safeguarding minority communities from being “cracked” or “packed” with a discriminatory outcome regardless of intentionality.

● Mitigate the risk of partisan manipulation. Finally, the PA Redistricting Reform Commission, plus the vast majority of Draw the Lines mappers, recommended against any use of voter registration data previous election results, at least when drafting preliminary maps for public review and comment.

Meaningful public engagement will yield a better result

With the release of Census data in August, Draw the Lines PA will soon release The Pennsylvania Citizens’ Map, a composite map that takes into account the values, median metric benchmarks, and regional trends that we've learned from the hundreds of maps Pennsylvanians have completed through DTL. It is by no means a perfect map, and we recognize there is no such thing. The Citizens’ Map, and its accompanying narrative, could stand as a useful starting point for the work your committee will undertake. It will meet or exceed each of the metrics set by the General Assembly’s 2011 mapping plan and the 2018 remedial map drawn by the Supreme Court. It will be vetted by our mappers, mindful of both the current legal standards and numerous on-the-ground features of the Commonwealth—rivers and mountain ridges, shared economic or cultural interests—that preclude the sort of simple grid-like pattern that may be acceptable in a flatter, more homogenous state.

Thorough engagement of the wider public in the map-making process is essential. We have never believed that redistricting is something that can be handed over to an algorithm. Redistricting is inherently political and, consequently, it requires that people discuss, debate and make reasoned judgments about how and where to consider tradeoffs and competing interests, and draw political boundaries in the best interests of the public. Election maps should be the product of a robust conversation between the represented and those who represent them. This also means that there is no perfect map; rather, we can design a process with clear rules and objectives, guided by ample public input, and concluding with a final plan and explanation of that plan. If such a process is followed on behalf of Pennsylvanians, we are confident it would yield a map adequately reflective of the Commonwealth and its diverse interests.

We appreciate the time and effort committed by you and your staff to set a new and higher standard for transparency and public engagement in the 2021-22 redistricting cycle. Some initial steps taken in both chambers have been in the right direction, and we look forward to continuing to work with you in the coming months.

David Thornburgh
President and CEO, Committee of Seventy
Chair, Draw the Lines PA

APPENDIX

Click to view Roadmap to Transparent Redistricting