HARRISBURG — When the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the state’s last congressional map, it blasted away heavily gerrymandered districts and replaced them with more balanced ones for this year’s election.
But larger questions about whether and how to reform the redistricting process in the long term were left to the legislature.
“We haven’t succeeded in further removing what got us in trouble in the first place, which is partisan self-interest,” said David Thornburgh, head of the Committee of Seventy. The Philadelphia-based good-government group is part of a coalition advocating for fairer maps. “We may have better maps but we haven’t fixed the process.”
On Tuesday, a group of state senators and, separately, two state representatives renewed discussions about proposals to have an independent citizen commission, rather than lawmakers, set the state’s congressional and legislative district boundaries. Advocates had been pressing for change, but the conversation was on hold during legal battles over congressional districts.
“I would have had three hearings already, but the lawsuit got in the way,” said State Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon), chairman of the chamber’s state government committee. “We probably would have had a product already done.”
Folmer said he had postponed the hearing earlier this year after consulting with lawyers, in part to avoid having testimony tip the outcome of the case.
Now, if they want to pass something in time for the next redrawing in 2021, legislators find themselves facing a tight deadline.
“That’s going to be the challenge,” Folmer said.
His committee spent four hours Tuesday hearing testimony about four Senate bills that would seek to create an independent commission to draw the congressional or legislative district lines — or both.
Under the current process, the legislature passes bills with the new congressional lines every 10 years, after the census is taken and seats in the House are shifted to account for changes in population. (Pennsylvania is again on track to lose a seat in the 2021 reapportionment.)
Lines for Pennsylvania’s state legislative districts — 50 Senate seats and 203 House seats — are drawn by a committee of legislative leaders, plus an additional member.
Three of the four Senate bills would create commissions to draw both sets of lines, while the fourth would only create a commission to redraw congressional lines (which would require a less cumbersome process to become law).
Some would give political leaders a role in the selection of commissioners — raising questions about how independent the commission would truly be — while others would seek to select people from random pools. The number of commissioners would range from five to 11.
Sen. Lisa Boscola (D., Lehigh), whose bill has been a primary focus in part because it has support from a Republican colleague, said at the hearing that she wasn’t married to any particular aspect of her proposal but believes in the importance of having an outside commission decide the lines. Without it, she said, state legislative leaders can pressure their colleagues to vote certain ways by threatening to draw them out of their districts. She said it happened to her once when she was serving in the state House, so she ran for the Senate instead.
Some Republicans said that they were tired of hearing excuses about districts making it impossible for Democrats and others to succeed, arguing instead that elections hinge on the quality of the candidates. Many of them also asked three of the bills’ prime sponsors — who are Democrats — whether they think independent commissioners could vote as a bloc to push an agenda, or whether the commissioners would understand difficult concepts legislators themselves sometimes struggle with.
Boscola at one point compared it to serving on a jury.
“I just have a lot of faith in their ability to do this. They’re not the same people we are,” she said, prompting an outpouring of applause from redistricting advocates in the audience.
In the end, it seems unlikely that any of the bills would pass in their current form. Folmer said after the meeting that he expected members would meet to discuss the pros and cons of various aspects of them.
Even if one version of one of those bills passed the full Senate, which has a Republican majority, it would need to pass through the GOP-led state House and, likely, its state government committee. Similar bills have been languishing without a vote in that committee. Chairman Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler) did not respond to a message left with his office Tuesday afternoon.
If a bill were to pass both chambers, there could be another logistical hurdle. Three of the four bills before the Senate committee and some in the House committee would require an amendment to the state constitution. Amendments have to pass through the legislature in identical form in two consecutive sessions and then be approved by voters.
Senators present at Tuesday’s meeting suspect that means that, in order for changes to be made in time for the next redrawing, a bill would have to pass both chambers for the first time by July 6. That’s within one week of the state’s budget deadline — which legislators don’t always make.
Democrats think there is momentum for change coming from the recent court cases, but it’s unclear how many Republicans will ultimately get on board.
Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said he suspects the state courts’ recent decision to step into the process could inspire Republicans to settle for an independent commission, since they don’t know who will control things when the lines are next redrawn.
“They don’t know who’s going to be in charge, so they should design a system that is fair if they are in the majority and fair if they are in the minority,“ Li said. “Those sorts of moments don’t exist often, but they do at this moment.”
But others are more skeptical.
“It‘s not clear whether there is enough momentum for reform to overcome the enormous obstacles it faces,” Temple University political scientist Michael G. Hagen said. He said he would be surprised if the reform bills moved through the legislature in time.
Carol Kuniholm, co-founder and chair of advocacy group Fair Districts PA, said it would be a travesty if legislative leaders refused to schedule a vote on any of the reform bills, given their public support and the number of lawmakers who have signed onto them.
“Any party that allows its leaders to say, ‘We are not interested in hearing a bill that people support,’ they are making a strong statement to the public,” she said.
Thornburgh, the head of Committee of 70, agreed that hope remains.
“This was a steep climb from the get-go. So the odds have never been in our favor,” he said. “But sometimes you have to stay on mission unless and until it becomes clear that mission’s no longer attainable.”