PA redistricting panel launches statewide listening tour

Chris Satullo

Jordi Comas speaks at Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission meeting in Williamsport, as Commission Chair David Thornburgh takes notes. | Image Credit: Don Henry

The Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission held its first stop on its statewide listening tour April 4 in Williamsport. Here's a report on what was said.

It discourages people from running for office.

It contributes to apathy among young people - and lower voter turnout in general.

It deepens the polarization of politics.

It breeds in lawmakers an arrogant reluctance to listen to constituents, while consolidating the power that party leaders hold over those same lawmakers.

It lacks transparency, accountability and fairness.

It “wounds our civic soul.”

By now, you’ve probably figured out that the “it” in the sentences above is partisan gerrymandering of election districts.

This indictment of the practice has been gaining force across America, from Utah to New Hampshire, Virginia to Michigan, Missouri and Colorado.

And it was echoed emphatically last week at the first hearing of the Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission, held at the First Community Foundation Partnership in Williamsport.


The scene at the first commission hearing in Williamsport

The hearing had a novel format.  People who signed up to testify were invited in groups of three or four to join the commission members in sitting around a U-shaped table.  Citizens were asked not to read from prepared statements, but to distill their views on the current system and their ideas for changing into a couple of minutes of informal conversation.

Then commission members engaged directly with the citizens, both asking and responding to questions.  This continued through three different panels, covering 13 citizens.

Commission Chair David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the good-government group called the Committee of Seventy, said he insisted on the innovative approach because he was tired of “public hearings where you don’t find much of the public and there isn’t much hearing going on.”

About 40 people attended the hearing. Taking part besides Thornburgh were commission members Amanda Holt of Allentown, Sharmain Matlock-Turner and Rev. Robert Johnson of Philadelphia and Lee Ann Banaszak of Penn State University. Aides for state Rep. Frank Dermody and state Sen. Jay Costa, the two Democratic lawmakers named to the panel, also sat in.

Some but not all of the citizens who took part in the panels were members of Fair Districts PA, a grassroots activist group that is pushing to amend the state Constitution to set up an independent citizen commission to draw state election maps, while seeking a companion law that would set up a similar commission to draw congressional maps.

 (The current system calls for a Legislative Reapportionment Commission made up of political appointees to draw the state maps, while the congressional map is decided by the General Assembly, subject to approval by the governor.)

This first hearing was mostly devoted to diagnosing the symptoms caused by the malady of gerrymandering, not getting into the nitty-gritty of the cure.  Gentle questioning from the commissioners did not press Fair Districts members on what, if any, fixes shy of their favored constitutional amendment they would accept for the state maps.   In all likelihood (though some disagree), the deadline for passing a constitutional amendment to change the state process has already lapsed.

That said, some memorable lines were uttered around the U-shaped table by citizens.

A number of them came Jordi Comas, a Bucknell University professor from Lewisburg who was the witness who said that the impacts of gerrymandering wound his “civic soul.”

Comas also said, “People say the Constitution gives the incumbents the power to draw districts. Yes, maybe so. But who gives the Constitution its power? We, the people.”

He also offered a mild critique of the lengths to which the Fair Districts proposal goes to vet potential members of a citizens commission for any hint of political involvement:  “You're not going to find 12 perfect angels from the heaven of government. You should try to minimize conflicts of interest, but you can't insist on people scrubbed of any partisan thought.”

Other notable statements from the hearing:

  • “If we want functional government, we can't have all our representatives elected in primaries by the votes of extreme partisans.”
  • “Ending gerrymandering is something the 'Boomer' generation ethically must do for the generations that follow. What kind of message are we sending to our kids and grandkids? Step into the light, Pennsylvania.”
  • “Gerrymandering is the gateway drug to voter suppression.”
  • “Gerrymandering is not innocuous. It’s insidious.”

The next hearing, which will use the same format, is Thursday, April 18 from 4 to 7 p.m., at Blasco Memorial Library, 160 E Front St., Erie, PA 16507

Check here for details on the full, nine-hearing schedule of the commission’s statewide listening tour.


Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission meets April 4, 2019, in Williamsport, PA.