Draw the Lines is a founding coalition partner of Fair Districts PA, a grassroots advocacy organization that is pushing for a state constitutional amendment to create an independent redistricting commission to draw these lines. Their website has an in-depth explanation of how the lines are currently drawn in Pennsylvania. Check it out.
In short, two different groups are responsible for drawing Pennsylvania’s Congressional and state boundaries every ten years. The Pennsylvania General Assembly draws the Congressional districts. This means that both the PA House of Representatives and PA Senate pass legislation codifying the boundaries of the total number of districts assigned to the commonwealth after reapportionment from the federal government (as determined by the U.S. Census). The governor then signs the legislation into law.
Procedures for drawing the lines for the General Assembly are set out by the state constitution. Five people making up the Legislative Reapportionment Commission are responsible for the entire process. Four of those five individuals are politicians (the majority and minority leaders for both the PA House and Senate), with the fifth either being selected by consensus among the first four, or more likely if they can’t come to an agreement, chosen by the PA State Supreme Court. Lately, the party that controls the State Supreme Court has de facto influence over the General Assembly’s redistricting process. This Politics PA article explains that although Republicans executed a flawless gerrymander in 2011, Democrats are looking forward to doing the same in 2021 because of their likely Supreme Court majority.
Pennsylvania’s distorted maps
It’s little surprise then that a 2017 report by NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice has described Pennsylvania’s political maps as among the nation’s worst examples of partisan gerrymandering. The report found that the politically distorted map has accounted for at least a two-to-four seat swing in the commonwealth’s congressional delegation in each of the three elections since 2011 redistricting.
What are the consequences of Pennsylvania’s partisan maps?
Pennsylvanians rarely get to participate in competitive elections where multiple points of view are viable. In 2014, three of 18 congressional seats went uncontested in the general election, and of the rest, only one race was decided by a margin of less than 20 percent (12.6). In 2016’s state legislative elections only 6% of all elections had margins within single-digits.
The results can also fail to an extreme degree to reflect actual voting. For example, in 2012, Pennsylvania’s Democratic congressional candidates drew more votes than Republican candidates by a narrow margin (50 to 49 percent), but Republicans won 13 of 18 seats (72 percent).
Conversely, Democratic operatives and donors from across the country are zeroing in on Pennsylvania as their primary battleground for tilting the playing field back in their favor in 2021 — Barack Obama and Eric Holder have already indicated redistricting will be one of their primary political activities in his post-presidency. There will be a flood of outside money coming into the Commonwealth in a massive arms’ race between the two parties. Pennsylvania voters will be caught in the crossfire.
Citizens have a say
How can Pennsylvania reach a better process for drawing these lines? Some favor amending the state constitution to create an independent commission that acts outside of partisan influence. Other, less ambitious legislative remedies could still produce a more transparent process and better maps. And various legal challenges to current maps are winding through both the state and federal court system.
However, none of these efforts will succeed without a foundation of active, engaged, informed citizens who understand the redistricting process and its impact — and who are inspired and able to make their voices heard.
That’s where Draw the Lines comes in. And it starts with the story about the power of a single individual to make a difference in our democracy.