Governor Wolf's Redistricting Commission Releases Recommendations for Redrawing PA's Electoral Maps

Governor Tom Wolf's Redistricting Commission has released their recommendations for reforming how political districts are drawn in Pennsylvania, and they've come up with a process that would go a long way toward removing incumbent lawmakers' ability to choose their own voters. 

Jonathan Lai describes the proposed changes to the process:

The recommendations by the Redistricting Reform Commission included forming an 11-member bipartisan commission that would submit three maps to lawmakers to choose from; setting specific nonpartisan criteria for how the lines should be drawn; and requiring all data be made public. The members were appointed by Wolf last year after the state Supreme Court overturned Pennsylvania’s congressional map and sparked a bitter political and legal fight [...]

Republican and Democratic leaders would each appoint five voting members, with neither side allowed to appoint more than two members of the same party. Members would have to be registered with the same political party for five years, preventing party-switching to cheat the system, and anyone who has held public office, worked on an elected official’s staff, or been registered as a lobbyist would be ineligible to serve on the commission.

The idea here is to scramble the parties' ability to effectively advocate for their own electoral interests, with the twist that Democrats have to nominate some Republicans and Republicans have to nominate some Democrats.

Cynically, the reality of such wide polarization between the parties probably means that the Republican Commissioners selected by Democrats will still coordinate just as well with their partisan colleagues as if they had been selected by fellow Republicans, and vice versa. Still, this would provide an opening for each party to exploit the geographic rivalries within the other party. Republicans could, for example, appoint three western PA Democrats to the Commission, knowing that most of the swing district Democrats want to flip are clustered in the southeast. At any rate, it does seem like this could be effective at the core objective of stopping incumbent elected officials from hand-selecting the voters most likely to support them. 
The way it works today is that there's a five-member commission comprised of the leaders of the four General Assembly caucuses, plus a representative agreed to by all of those parties. The maps that the committee approves must then be approved by the Governor. If the Governor vetoes the maps, the process moves to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Court is empowered to hire an expert to draw the lines, which is the process that gave us the new Congressional map that went into effect in 2018 after a successful lawsuit that invalidated the older map.

The second part of the recommendations laying out how the maps would actually be produced seems a little more questionable, depending on where you sit in the districting debates. The requirement not to consider partisan information at all when drawing the lines means the map's priorities are weighted much more toward compact and contiguous district shapes, as opposed to other priorities like creating more competitive elections, or greater competition for majority control of Pennsylvania's Congressional or state legislative delegations, or guaranteeing more representation for specific groups of voters.

Lai notes that while the Commission gestures at the idea of setting a high bar for protecting racial minorities' power, they don't spell out exactly how they would accomplish this. One reason for that might be that it could be hard to do this if we're making compact district shapes such a high priority.

"After holding public meetings, the commission would select from public submissions and also draw its own maps, which would aim for compactness. Where possible, political districts would follow town and county lines, keeping communities together.

The report also floated the idea of a state standard that would go beyond federal protections for the voting power of communities of racial minorities; however, it did not make a specific proposal.

The commission would be forbidden from considering individuals’ addresses, registered voters’ political affiliation, and previous election results (except if required by federal law).

All data used or considered by the mapmakers would be made public before being used, and each map would include a short explanation of its values or goals, and quantitative measures of its compactness, contiguity, and town and county splits."

Another view of the current problems with redistricting in Pennsylvania might reasonably consider the imperative for competitive elections, or for competitive control of the Congressional and state legislative delegations a higher priority, which would require the use of party registration and election results data for map-drawing. This is the 'Efficiency Gap' case for redistricting reform—a measure of gerrymandering that "gives you, in a single number, an indication of which side is benefiting from all of the cracking and packing and how large of an advantage they have," as University of Chicago law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos, one of the concept's creators, describes it. 

Without considering partisan data and past election results, the Commission would risk locking in a structural advantage for one party or another under the banner of non-partisan reform. 

Another interesting change envisioned by the Commission is that the public would be involved in the map-drawing process, in addition to the Commission, which could result in some outside persuasion campaigns in support of different maps. In the end, the Commissioners would be allowed to pick from three maps, but couldn't alter details within the maps. There are various options for how to structure a final vote on the map that's approved by the 11-member Commission, but if it was the full legislature, a super-majority vote would be required. 

It's unclear what role the state Supreme Court would still play in this process. If the whole thing were to deadlock in the legislature, would the Court still step in and play the same role it played in 2018? If so, the final outcome under this process might not be much different than what would happen in the absence of the Redistricting Commission's suggested changes.

What do readers think about the Commission's proposal? Is the process laid out a good one? What types of considerations need more emphasis, or less?

Read the full report

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