Redistricting Reform Should Establish Separate Commissions

In politics, reform is a magic word.  During campaign season, as voters know too well, it is tossed as freely as rice once was at weddings.  The concept of reform, wrapped in high principles and noble intentions, invariably draws wide public support.  But getting broad agreement on a practical, detailed plan, and then running the gauntlet of the legislative process, is a much tougher slog.

Sure, there are always staunch opponents who will use every argument and stratagem to stop reform.  Yet, the splintering of advocates can prove just as substantial an obstacle.  No matter the weight of public and commentator pressure or the press of a deadline for action, a bill must prove convincing that the anticipated improvements have a realistic chance of being realized.

For advocates of state government reform, a major disappointment of the recently concluded two-year legislative session was failure to achieve first-round approval of a proposed constitutional amendment creating an independent redistricting commission.  Still, the interest generated and the late-breaking momentum developed should carry over.  Advocates will be back; complaints prompting the reform effort have not been assuaged.  The replacement congressional map imposed by the state Supreme Court is not the complete answer.  As reformers fully realize, unless the process of line-drawing is altered, the next map could look like the old maps they despised.

Reformers want a replacement process to better ward off the chances of an excessively gerrymandered map in future redistricting.  The qualifier stuck in there is purposeful, because any map is going to be gerrymandered to some degree.  The argument is really about extent and motivation.

It turns out that the failure last session may prove beneficial.  Because of the tight timetable before the next redistricting, advocates are apparently going to pursue a two-track process.  In football terms, that constitutes a smart game plan and effective clock management.  For reform to score, separate commissions should undertake congressional and legislative redistricting.

Players in the process stress the unique circumstances of Pennsylvania in explaining why things are the way they are.  Just as frequently, advocates of change copy something from other states and seek to graft it onto our structure.  Models from other states rarely translate well to ours, because states are just not configured the same in political structure or culture.

Here, congressional redistricting and legislative redistricting have been separate processes for decades.  Now, with neither existing process finding much favor among public interest types, creating a combined process has logic to it.  But vesting one commission with both exercises is too much responsibility in too few hands.  Running parallel processes affords more time to get each right.

Practical considerations support the argument for separate commissions.  Federal issues differ in nature and scope from state issues.  Determining macro communities of interest for congressional districts is different from the micro communities of interest represented in 203 state House districts.  Concededly, the mechanics of line drawing do not change from one map to the next, but the decisions that precede the mechanics vary markedly.

Obviously, there are fewer congressional districts, substantially larger in population and territory.  So how do you get fair representation of interests and concerns with fewer commission members than there are congressional districts?  That seems a stretch even in theory.

Whatever one thinks of previous congressional maps, they did embody the consensus reached by at least 128 state legislators.  Contrast that with the fifteen-member commission that was peddled last session, a much smaller and narrower pool of experience and perspective.  This is not to dispute the potential advantages of a commission, or to write off a smaller commission for legislative redistricting.  It is to say that, for mapping congressional districts, a substantially larger commission squares with the objective of increasing public participation and community input.

In deciding a map, dispute resolution works the same for a fifty-four-member commission as for a fifteen-member commission.  A majority carries the day.  No matter the method determined for selecting commission members, an intriguing notion is three members per congressional district: one Republican, one Democrat, and one independent.  That yields increased participation and greater protection against a stacked deck.

If the population trends hold through the next census, the congressional line-drawers will again have the unhappy task of erasing a congressional district.  The delegation will drop from eighteen to seventeen, fewer than half the historic high of thirty-six.  Pennsylvania is growing more slowly than many states, and would be shrinking were it not for the influx of immigrants.  This produces one of the few points of consensus in redistricting.  People readily agree that some other part of the state should lose the seat.  A newly constituted commission is less likely to look at reasons of political expedience for determining which district ends up on the chopping block.  Under the commission configuration, the district lost will be decided by citizens rather than political parties.  The outcome may not be easier or calmer, but the visuals will be improved from a good government standpoint.

There are a lot of subsidiary choices to be made – how many members on the commission, how they are chosen, what might qualify or disqualify someone, how to resolve the inevitable disputes to produce a final map, and where to take challenges.  A general misconception is that a less partisan process will make the product less controversial.  Nice thought, but Pennsylvania could be called the land of contention for deserved reasons.  County and community rivalries can be every bit as bitter as those between the parties.  Anyone doubting that can check the archives of previous rounds when the loss of seats forced districts to be merged.

Given the high degree of difficulty of moving a major reform through the legislative process, some might fret separate commissions doubles the difficulty of bringing home reform.  Actually, constructing two commissions drawn to suit the distinctive responsibilities of the two redistricting exercises should pare down the arguments of opposition.  Separate commissions address legitimate policy and decision-making issues, and thus remove obstacles to achieving success.


Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Susquehanna Valley Center.