Commentary: Give the 'Pa. Plan' for redistricting reform a chance

Chris Satullo

David Thornburgh of the Committee of Seventy

Gov. Wolf chose Thornburgh to chair a special commission on redistricting reform that wrapped up its work in August.

The next six months offer Pennsylvania its last chance to slay the gerrymander before new election maps get drawn in 2021.

The redistricting reform panel holds one of its nine hearings, this one in Williamsport. | Image Credit: Chris Satullo

(NOTE TO READERS:  This is a commentary reflecting the personal opinion of the writer, not a statement by Draw the Lines PA.  by way of transparency, know that the writer, Chris Satullo, is a paid adviser to DTL. Consider also: DTL is a unit of the Committee of Seventy, whose CEO, David Thornburgh, chaired the redistricting reform panel that is the topic of this piece.  Judge the words below any way you see fit, in light of those facts.)

If that six-month window closes without action, the Commonwealth likely will have doomed itself to another decade of stacked partisan maps that cheat voters and mistreat independents, while fostering division, dysfunction, and costly court cases.  Maps, in short, that wound democracy.

Thousands upon thousands of Pennsylvanians know this and are alarmed by it, thanks to grassroots organizations such as Fair Districts PA and initiatives such as Draw the Lines PA.

Despite that ferment, no worthy redistricting reform has been able to muster the needed votes in the politically pragmatic place called Harrisburg.  

It's perplexing.  Especially given this fact: More than a few lawmakers inside the Capitol do see that their building is broken, with gerrymandering a big reason why.


Yet the will for change remains weak. Why?

 Because the status quo grants nearly all power to draw election maps to those very same lawmakers.  Think: If you were allowed to dictate the terms of your performance evaluation, would you willingly relinquish such a boon to job security?

Yes, legislative leaders have botched the job of redistricting for decades, enraging voters and spawning litigious chaos.  But this, in their view, is no reason for them to give up the gig.  They simply can’t imagine a world where they can’t wield the pen for their partisan aims.  

This combination of terrible track record with smug attitude is precisely why the grassroots tends to favor reforms that offers incumbents absolutely no say over how these vital lines get drawn.

Whatever the philosophical merits of that stance, it’s pretty much dead- on-arrival in the building with the dome, where success demands attracting 26 votes in the Senate and 102 in the House.

A panel with some potent ideas

But, suddenly, a new player has appeared on the field, offering a different playbook.

A special state commission on redistricting reform has released its recommendations, based on the yield from an energetic listening tour that gathered input from more than 1,400 Pennsylvanians.

If you haven’t heard yet about this exemplary report, you’re excused.  For some reason, the governor’s office dropped it into the dead zone of Labor Day weekend.

But this proposal by a bipartisan 13-member panel (chaired by David Thornburgh, CEO of the Committee of Seventy) has multiple virtues:

  • It’s a Pennsylvania plan, designed specifically for Pennsylvania by Pennsylvanians.  It’s not an awkward transplant from another state.
  • It draws upon the authentic voices of the state’s electorate.
  • It strikes an ingenious balance between needed reforms and political reality.
  • It displays innovative thinking that improves on what other states have tried.

Through nine hearings held around the state, along with an online survey and comment portal, the commission modeled the kind of inclusive outreach that it thinks should inform the next round of redistricting in 2021.  Such outreach improves outcome, as well as public trust in it.  

The listening tour made clear how much Pennsylvanians hate gerrymandering and its works – and how much they agree on which values should guide mapmaking: respect for one-person-one vote, for compactness, and for county and municipal borders. Also, no respect for partisan gain.

The commission’s proposal for how to put those goals into practice is ingenious.  It lets lawmakers keep some skin in the redistricting game but limits the mischief they can do.

Enough California dreamin'

Many reformers cast envious eyes at California, where a fully empowered independent citizens commission, rigorously vetted for partisan bias, draws election maps.   But maybe you’ve noticed: Pennsylvania is not California.

Just because you taste a fabulous cabernet in Napa Valley, that doesn’t mean you can simply declare: I’m going to make the same wine in Dauphin County.  The terrain and climate are completely different.  You need to figure out how to make a fine wine from Pennsylvania soil.

Here’s one crucial difference between Left Coast and Keystone State: California has initiative and referendum; we do not.  

Here, unlike there, voters can’t enact by themselves a big change that incumbents fear or dislike.  Here, any redistricting reform has to be approved by the very same lawmakers whose lives will be changed by it. That doesn’t mean reform is impossible, just harder, requiring a willingness not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Accordingly, the Thornburgh report does propose an 11-member citizens commission. But it offers Harrisburg’s potentates some say in who is on it – with guardrails preventing them from packing the panel with hacks.  The commission's job would be to generate proposed maps, then choose  three to be sent along to the General Assembly.  The legislature would have some reasonable deadline (say, a month) to pick one of the three (no fiddling with the lines, no whining).

If the pols couldn’t get their act together, the power would flow back to the commission, which would pick one of the three.  It’s basically the same trick savvy parents use to get their kindergartener dressed for school in the morning.  Don’t ask: What do you want to wear?  Say: Here’s your green shirt, your red one and the blue. Pick one.

Under this plan, lawmakers still get input and a choice, but it’s a managed choice, where every one of the options would be far better than what the pols would produce if left to their own devices. 

(The commission idea could also work for state legislative maps, but differently. The panel’s group of maps would go to the constitutionally mandated Legislative Reform Commission, and could only be advisory.  Absent a change in the state Constitution – which can’t happen in time for 2021 – the LRC has final say over state maps.)

Wisdom in, wisdom out

As for innovation, the report strongly urges the state to leap into the digital age, giving citizens tools to draw and submit maps as testimony, to testify remotely at hearings and so on.  It also recommends using an innovation called ranked-choice voting to winnow the pool of maps to the three to be sent to the legislature.

If a bill incorporating the Thornburgh plan’s sound thinking were enacted, Pennsylvania would be transformed overnight from a repeat victim of the gerrymander into a shining exemplar of smart reform.

The report deserves your attention – and a vote in the General Assembly.