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Want to help fight gerrymandering? Pa. redistricting commission coming to Philly

Written by Ximena Conde/Keystone Crossroads | May 27, 2019 1:01 PM
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Voters in the Philadelphia region with thoughts on how Pennsylvania should redraw its congressional and legislative districts after the 2020 census can weigh in on the matter at Tindley Temple United Methodist Church during a public hearing Tuesday evening.

"I think the major thing that we have to realize is that every vote should count in a way that no one feels that their vote doesn't count and that they're being disenfranchised," said Tindley Temple's Rev. Robert Johnson.

Johnson is also one of 15 members of Gov. Tom Wolf's bipartisan redistricting reform commission, created in November 2018 to gather, among other things, public input on how redistricting should be handled to avoid partisan gerrymandering.

As the 2020 census nears, so does the redrawing of the state's congressional and legislative maps to reflect population changes, a task that has previously led to a series of contentious court battles.

Pennsylvania's 2011 map was criticized by lawmakers and voting advocates for being one of the most gerrymandered in the U.S., unfairly benefiting Republicans -- giving them the majority in the congressional delegation -- in a state that was almost evenly split between Democrats and members of the GOP.

The districts were less compact and boundaries divided counties resulting in shapes like Pennsylvania's 7th District, which some said looked like the Disney character Goofy kicking Donald Duck, and others said looked like a moose with antlers.

The state Supreme Court ultimately struck down the 2011 version of the map and implemented its own in February 2018 after lawmakers couldn't agree on a replacement in time for the 2018 midterms.

The new maps, paired with Democratic efforts to create a "blue wave," appeared to help even out the state's congressional delegation with a 9-9 partisan split -- although a Keystone Crossroads analysis found the election results would have been the same even if the former map had been in place.

Still, when Pennsylvania's high court implemented its own map, the rules that allow the state House and Senate to redraw congressional boundaries with approval from the governor remained the same.

The rules that allow a five-member commission of state legislators to draw state legislative boundaries also stayed in place.

The commission has held hearings in places including Altoona, Erie, Pittsburgh, and Reading so far.

At least one commissioner hoped the hearing process would garner a fresh batch of ideas on how to create district boundaries without amending the state constitution, since an amendment and drawing new maps by the 2022 elections appears to be a longshot.

Johnson said some attendees have expressed satisfaction with the current way maps are created.

"We have people who say, 'Listen I think this is the best thing we got going, the Legislature is doing a great job,'" said Johnson, noting the majority of people at these hearings have pitched changes on who should have a say in making the future maps.

Some attendees have proposed politicians be excluded from the process and replaced by a citizens commission, according to Johnson.

Then, there are those who say the solution lies somewhere in the middle.

"You have people who say, 'Listen, let's mix it. Let's have a citizens commission and politicians work together to draw the maps,'" Johnson said.

Tuesday's hearing in Philadelphia will be held at Tindley Temple United Methodist Church, 750 S. Broad Street, from 4 to 7 p.m.

So far, turnout has hovered between 60 and 80 people, and young people have remained largely absent, Johnson said.

At least two more hearings will take place this summer in Bethlehem and Wilkes-Barre.

Attendees don't have to pitch solutions to mapping if they attend, and Johnson said many have used the hearings as an opportunity to explain how they've been affected by the previous district boundaries.

The feedback the commission gathered this year will be part of a report due to the governor this fall.

Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaborative of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY. This story originally appeared at https://whyy.org/programs/keystone-crossroads.

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