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What other papers are saying: State still lacks transparent, nonpartisan redistricting

This year’s round of redistricting – the work of shaping the political maps that help to determine the lawmakers who represent us in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. – once again “falls to a small group of legislative insiders who work behind closed doors,” Spotlight PA’s Kate Huangpu reported recently. This comes despite the fact that this year’s redrawing of the maps “was preceded by an intense push for more public input, as well as a failed effort to take the power out of lawmakers’ hands and give it to an independent citizens commission,” Huangpu wrote.

Redistricting is concerned with future elections and what their congressional and state legislature maps will look like. Spotlight PA’s Huangpu examined where that complicated process stands in Pennsylvania. “Every 10 years, using updated census information on where the state has grown or shrunk, Pennsylvania redraws its state and federal districts to better represent its population,” Huangpu explained. “The state’s congressional map is approved through the traditional legislative process, which requires a vote from the Pennsylvania House and Senate and the signature of the governor.”

But the last redistricting cycle in Harrisburg “saw virtually no collaboration between the Republican and Democratic caucus demographers as GOP lawmakers controlled both the legislative and executive branches,” the Spotlight PA article noted. That ultimately led to the state Supreme Court tossing out Pennsylvania’s legislative and congressional maps in 2018, finding they unfairly benefited Republicans.

This time, the political dynamic in Harrisburg is different. Plus, good-government advocacy groups such as Fair Districts PA have fought (though not always successfully) to let the public be involved with the process of drawing and reviewing the maps.

“The maps … will shape Pennsylvania politics, policy, budgets and law for the next decade and beyond,” Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA, wrote in an op-ed for LNP/LancasterOnline in August. “We want districts that make sense for counties and communities, with clear routes to legislators’ offices and any divisions of counties, cities or municipalities explained.”

We want these things, too. The long-deployed process of drawing unfair maps that benefit one political party or demographic group is called gerrymandering, and it’s been practiced by both Republicans and Democrats over the decades, depending on which party is in power during redistricting. Gerrymandering is awful for democracy.

Citizens should play a larger role, too. But that’s not necessarily going to be the case in the coming weeks, as Huangpu explains.

The Democrats and Republicans in Harrisburg each have caucus teams, mostly led by staffers with long experience drawing maps. They are by definition trying to represent the interests of their own party. The new maps will ultimately go to the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, which is made up of two Republicans, two Democrats and independent chair Mark Nordenberg, who Spotlight PA reports will be focused on hearing public concerns. “The panel already has hosted 10 meetings dedicated to hearing comments from experts and interested parties as well as accepted written testimony and district maps created by the public,” Spotlight PA noted.

That’s promising, but listening and taking action based on the public’s interest are two different things.

“What frustrates the reformers is when they don’t feel like they’re being heard,” Jonathan Cervas, a research associate at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project who is assisting Nordenberg, told Spotlight PA.

We’ll know soon enough the extent to which the public’s voice is being heard on redistricting. Spotlight PA reports that the preliminary maps could be released around Nov. 28. Pennsylvanians will then have 30 days to provide feedback to the redistricting panel.

The timetable for final changes and approval will be tight, though. “Both parties have expressed a desire to complete the process before it affects the 2022 May primaries,” Huangpu wrote. “If maps are released after Feb. 15, the candidacy filing deadline, politicians might run for a district that will not exist by the general election.”

Fair redistricting shouldn’t have to come down to the public making an outcry in the final weeks of the process, but that seems slightly better than what we’ve seen before in Pennsylvania. Not good enough, though. Lawmakers must pass reforms that ensure that the next redistricting cycle is required to be fair, transparent and nonpartisan.

– LNP/Lancaster Online

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