Antoinette Lobello didn’t think twice about party affiliations while drawing congressional district lines. She didn’t try anything fancy, resisting suggestions from other people in her group. All she considered was Pennsylvania’s population density and distribution, and got to work from there.
Lobello, a sophomore biological sciences major at Drexel University, drew a map with six of her classmates for their political science course. And her class assignment could win her group up to $5,000 in a statewide competition sponsored by the political watchdog group Committee of Seventy.
Draw the Lines PA is a civic education and engagement initiative that invites Pennsylvania residents to redraw the state’s congressional district lines. The program is supported by Philadelphia and Pittsburgh nonprofits, including a $500,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation.
The deadline for submissions for the first round is Friday at 11:59 p.m. Regional winners in Western, Central, and Eastern Pennsylvania take home a $500 prize. Statewide winners in each category — high school, college, or adult — could win up to $4,500 for their mapping masterpieces. Panels of judges will choose the winners through quantitative metrics such as compactness and equal population, along with the map’s personal statement.
“Since states usually decide behind closed doors, we only concerned ourselves with population,” Lobello said. “We didn’t look where certain party members lie. We didn’t actually pay attention to that at all, so it could be as unbiased as possible."
Earlier this year the state Supreme Court ruled that the state’s congressional map constituted an illegal gerrymander in favor of the GOP and ordered the lines redrawn before the November election. Under law, the lines will be redrawn again in 2021, after the 2020 Census.
The Draw the Lines PA competition will continue every six months through 2021, said David Thornburgh, the president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy. In future rounds, contestants likely will take on state Senate and House district lines for a state that has the second-largest legislature, with 253 members total.
“This is sort of to whet the appetite of folks,” Thornburgh said. “It’s like when you try to learn how to do puzzles, you start with a the 20-piece version then you move onto the 5,000-piece one.”
This competition is meant to give people “a hands-on understanding” of how to draw political maps, in the hopes they will engage heir lawmakers in conversation about their redistricting goals and priorities, he said.
Thornburgh was chosen last month to chair Gov. Tom Wolf’s redistricting commission. The 15-member commission will recommend ways to remedy gerrymandering in the state. He said he’ll be bringing to the table the maps Pennsylvanians submit.
Kate Doyle, head of Fair District PA’s southeastern chapter and member of the Draw the Lines PA steering commission, said the initiative gives residents exposure to the process. And if Pennsylvania ever creates an independent commission to draw the lines, it might have some experienced hands to draw upon.
“Some legislators have questioned whether a non-legislator would be able to draw a map. This initiative shows it is possible and it’s a viable option to have folks that are not legislators draw these lines," she said.
This summer, the state Senate passed a bill creating an independent commission to draw the lines but it fell victicof Pennsylvanians tasked to draw state Senate and House district lines. But the bill fell to a “poison pill” by Senate Republicans to include judicial districts, and later died under more than 700 amendments in the House.
Maps are drawn on the DistrictBuilder tool, created by Philadelphia tech company Azavea. Committee of Seventy and its dozens of partners have hosted more than 60 map-building events since the competition began in September.