Testimony on Redistricting Reform
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Testimony on Redistricting Reform

Committee of Seventy
Written Testimony on Redistricting Reform
House State Government Committee Hearing
September 18, 2019

Let me begin by thanking Majority Chair Everett and Minority Chair Boyle for taking up this issue of redistricting reform today. This hearing marks a major and welcome stride forward in this conversation. Thank you for your leadership, and we look forward to working with you.

As chair of the Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission, I had the privilege of spending the better part of this year working with 12 other commission members to assess our current redistricting processes, survey reforms in other states, and—most important—hear the thoughts, opinions and concerns of over a thousand of Pennsylvanians from all across the Commonwealth. The final report was delivered to the Governor and leadership of the General Assembly on August 29 and includes the commission’s findings and a recommended process that we believe fits our unique history and the culture, geography, and system of governance in Pennsylvania.

I strongly recommend that the members of this committee consider the substance of this report in their deliberations in the coming weeks. With the time available today, I would like to highlight three elements of the commission’s work: 1) The simple framework we used to organize our thinking; 2) The frustration with the status quo we heard from Pennsylvanians, and their belief that we can do better; and 3) The commission’s recommended process, one that we believe is well suited to Pennsylvania.

A simple framework

First, I’d recommend to you the three-part framework the Commission used for evaluating the redistricting process, comparing various reforms and proposals, and in soliciting feedback from citizens:

  • Who should draw, revise, and approve the maps?
  • What criteria, values, and goals should they follow?
  • How can the process be structured to give all Pennsylvanians a voice in how their districts are drawn?

A trustworthy redistricting process requires all three elements to work together; if, for whatever reason, one area is less robust, the other two must be even stronger to ensure the integrity of the process as a whole. For example, if map-drawers are less politically independent, their decisions should be bounded by stricter, enforceable criteria and higher degrees of public engagement, openness and transparency.

The more than 1,000 Pennsylvanians who provided feedback to the commission were asked to comment using this framework as well. Whether in person at our public meetings, or in online comments and surveys, across party identification, ethnicity, and gender, respondents were emphatic that the status quo is unsatisfactory in all three areas and that significant reform is needed across the board.

Public frustration with the status quo and desire for change

Who should draw the maps? As much as possible, citizens, not politicians, should hold the pen that draws and revises election maps.

Perhaps most striking was the nearly unanimous opinion that elected officials should not have the power to draw their political districts. Citizens understand that this creates a direct conflict of interest in the map-making process. For that reason, they consistently cited the need for a citizens commission as the “who” to draw maps. They did not always agree on how those citizens would be selected or what the qualifications should be. Some participants suggested that commission members be selected at random from a pool of qualified applicants while others allowed politicians a limited role in their appointment. With regard to citizen commissioners themselves, participants cited the need for integrity, commitment to public engagement, some degree of pre-existing competence or knowledge about the subject matter, and that they reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of Pennsylvania.

What criteria should be used? The criteria and values by which the maps are drawn should be clear, consistent and accountable.

Our review of redistricting practices in the eight states that have reformed their practices in the last 20 years makes clear that there are a number of criteria that can be considered when drawing political maps. Not all can be prioritized equally, and some can even conflict with each other. The commission heard, above all, that the criteria used in Pennsylvania should be clearly defined to help ensure accountability. Compactness, contiguity, minimizing the splitting of political subdivisions (e.g., counties, municipalities, and school districts), population equality, and respect for communities of color were most frequently cited. Some who testified also pointed out that with ~2,600 local governments, Pennsylvania’s jurisdictions are a better proxy for “communities of interest” than in states where local government largely stops at the county level. Whatever the criteria, however, many expressed their concern that explicit criteria are, on their own, insufficient to guard against abuse, as we’ve seen through multiple rounds of litigation over the state legislative maps. And this is why both the “who” and the “how” must be changed as well.

How should the process work? The map-drawing process should be straightforward, open, and transparent.

The public offered a great many suggestions as to how, step-by-step, the map-drawing process should work in Pennsylvania. Most of what we heard came down to a desire for the process to be straightforward, open and accessible, and transparent. The broadly shared sentiment is that the actual drawing of political maps has never taken place with meaningful public input and in the open for all to see and participate. Rather, our current boundaries have been drawn behind closed doors by a handful of powerful elected officials and their staff; and in the case of our congressional maps in 2018, by a single academic from California retained by the Supreme Court. In 2021, Pennsylvanians want a process where they have legitimate opportunities to provide input, both in person at public hearings across the state and through online surveys. This should include opportunities to provide initial feedback before any mapping plan is created and then directly on a first (or second or third) proposed plan.

Finally, in this next cycle every citizen in Pennsylvania will have access to the data and software to draw their own maps—and they expect this new ability to have a role in the formal process. Over 3,300 Pennsylvanians have now participated in Draw the Lines PA, the public mapping competition conducted by my organization these last two years, which demonstrates that Pennsylvanians are ready, willing and able to contribute—and certainly critique, if given the chance—election maps to the process.

The Commission’s Model: A Plan for Pennsylvania

In considering all of the public comments received, lessons learned from recent reforms in other states, and legislation recently introduced in the General Assembly, the ultimate goal of the commission was to create a redistricting model that citizens would understand and trust. A detailed outline of the model we arrived at can be found in the final pages of the report, but I’ll summarize it in the ‘Who, What and How’ framework as follows:

  • Who: Maps are drawn and revised by an appointed 11-member bi-partisan commission.  Each major party would nominate 5 members (2 of their own party, two from the other major party, and one either third party or unaffiliated) and the Governor would appoint the 11th member as a nonvoting chair.  Appointments would be subject to strict qualifications and disqualifications to ensure a reasonable amount of political independence. In a process informed by public input and specific criteria, the Commission ultimately submits three possible maps to a bipartisan legislative body (either the General Assembly, a bipartisan subset, or the Legislative Reapportionment Commission), which chooses the final map.
  • What: Maps should be drawn in accordance with simple but strict criteria that make it more difficult to divide political jurisdictions and communities, more difficult to draw districts with the goal of advantaging one party or another, and to ensure that diverse populations across the Commonwealth have a reasonable ability to have their interests represented.
  • How: The maps should be drawn in a process that, at every turn, is transparent and open, and offers 21st century opportunities for public engagement.

One of the model’s defining traits and part of what makes it Pennsylvanian is its intention to generate a mapping plan through consensus. Decision making by consensus has deep roots in Pennsylvania through our Quaker history and our moderate political culture, and we believe it is what citizens yearn for in these times of overheated partisanship. In our recommended model, the 11th commission member, appointed by the Governor to serve as a non-voting chair, is responsible for mediating discussion and building consensus among the other members. Important decisions should be made with super-majority votes. In the event a super-majority vote of the commission cannot be reached, ranked-choice voting—a consensus-oriented voting procedure—can be used as a backstop.

Pennsylvanians expect their representatives to act

We love football in this state. But lest we forget the obvious, like any sport football is great because both teams play by a set of rules that are clearly defined and understandable. If they don’t, referees call foul, but otherwise the refs stay out of the game. This makes for a level playing field which, incidentally, is out in the open for all to see. When the clock runs out, people trust the final score because they trust the process.

Pennsylvanians deserve a redistricting process they can trust. Between the model recommended by this commission and other reform proposals backed by Fair Districts PA, Common Cause and others, there are many suitable answers to the who, what, and how of redistricting. Multiple bills already introduced but sitting in committee would, if passed, constitute monumental strides forward from the status quo.

But time is short. The Committee of Seventy urges the members of this committee to make every effort to coalesce bipartisan support behind a new, independent citizens commission for our congressional maps, which can be done by statute and well before 2020 Census data would become available in 2021.

Tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians, many of whom have been rallied by Fair Districts PA, have lent their time, energy and personal resources to the cause of redistricting reform. They’ve spoken forcefully to their lack of trust in a process where elected officials draw political maps and insist that their representatives act to pass reform. Now is the time to act.

Thank you.

David Thornburgh
President and CEO, Committee of Seventy
Chair, Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission