Gov. Wolf Visits State College To Talk Redistricting
by Geoff Rushton
With a court-mandated deadline for a new Pennsylvania congressional map just two weeks away, Gov. Tom Wolf was in State College on Tuesday to join a panel for a town hall-style meeting on redistricting.
The state Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 22 that the current map of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional districts “clearly, plainly and palpably violates” the state Constitution. That ruling came on a challenge by 18 Democratic voters and the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters, who argued that the map drawn in 2011 by the Republican-controlled legislature was partisan gerrymandering. Twelve of the 18 districts are currently represented by Republicans.
Tuesday’s town hall, with a crowded audience at the State College Municipal Building, was designed to be a nonpartisan discussion about gerrymandering and redistricting.
“All of us in government are stewards of a democratic tradition, and if that democratic tradition is somehow sullied, for whatever reason, then all of us, Democrats and Republicans, are worse off,” Wolf said.
The Supreme Court’s ruling, which state GOP leaders have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, stipulates that the legislature send a new map to Wolf for approval by Feb. 9 and for Wolf to sign off on a map and send it to the court by Feb. 15. If the General Assembly doesn’t get it done, or Wolf doesn’t approve, the court will redraw it.
Wolf has indicated previously he will not sign off on a redistricting if he believes it has been gerrymandered.
Brad Vivian, director of the Center for Democratic Deliberation at Penn State and part of the panel on Tuesday, said gerrymandering contributes to the decline in civic participation and trust.
“There’s a sense in which the way districts can be drawn unfairly provides disincentives for getting to know one another, to work with one another and to be involved with a full democratic process,” he said. “We’re sorting ourselves into polarized communities… In a district where you can create a scenario that you know you’ll get elected if you only appeal to a certain portion of the population, you don’t have a lot of incentive to go out and work with the full, diverse spectrum of people’s backgrounds, interests and needs.”
Panelist Jessica O’Hara, a Penn State associate professor of communication arts and sciences who teaches a course on rhetoric and civic life, said that gerrymandering is contrary to what ordinary citizens value in democracy.
“It is antithetical to everything Americans talk about in terms of their democracy and the way we like to live,” she said.
Chris Fowler, an assistant professor of geography at Penn State, said there is no truly objective way for the map to be drawn and that there will be winners and losers.
“There is no way to do it criteria-wise that doesn’t allow you to game the system,” Fowler said. “The only thing you can do is to start from a conversation about what values are. This isn’t about getting it right. There isn’t a right. It’s about what are our values and how do we put them into practice.”
Wolf has enlisted Tufts University mathematician Moon Duchin to advise him in evaluating the fairness of the new congressional map and he said Duchin has also told him there is no objective way to draw the map.
“But you can use objective criteria to judge whether a map is going overboard to be overly unfair,” he said. “We need to bend over backward and use everything we can to judge what I’m going to get and present to the Supreme Court is in fact fair.”
The Supreme Court ordered, and the state constitution requires, that the congressional map be “composed of compact and contiguous territory; as nearly equal in population as practicable; and which do not divide any county, city, incorporated town, borough, township, or ward, except where necessary to ensure equality of population.”
The panelists and many in attendance agreed that the Supreme Court decision is only a first step and only addresses issues with the congressional map in the short-term.
For many, including groups like Fair Districts PA, a citizen-led, nonpartisan group, the answer is an independent citizens commission that would be charged with setting the congressional map after each 10-year U.S. Census.
“This court case looks at history and says this is a bad situation that has to be addressed now. What it doesn’t do is change anything about the future,” said Debbie Trudeau, a co-leader of Fair Districts PA in Centre County. “The system needs to change. There are 21 states that use independent citizen commissions. We’d like to be the 22nd.”
Nearly identical state Senate and House bills were introduced last year with bipartisan support to reapportion state and congressional districts, but have not moved out of committee. Fair Districts PA has worked with municipalities across the state, including in Centre County, to pass resolutions in support of the legislation.
The bills would amend the state constitution to establish the commission, criteria for who could serve it and the process for redistricting. If and when they come to a vote, they would have to be approved twice by the General Assembly and voted on by Pennsylvania residents, a process that would take about four years.
“This court decision shouldn’t be treated as a reason to sit back,” said panelist Zak Kalp, a Penn State student and founder of the nonpartisan student organization Better Politics. “It’s more proof we need to push even harder for this commission.”
Kalp said that he hears from students who are disillusioned with politics and when he looks at the state’s congressional map, he understands why.
“They say it’s rigged and they walk away,” he said. “Whenever I look at gerrymandering and what it does I kind of start to understand why they are saying that. Voices aren’t heard. But you can’t just walk away and wait for it to get better. You have to do something and get involved.”
Wolf supports the legislation for an independent commission and said that regardless of party, he wants citizens to lead the way.
“We’ve got to get away from the idea that democracy is a spectator sport,” he said. “We’re all participants, and the fundamental responsibility of any citizen is you need to participate.The problem is not simply that we have too few people making decisions. We have too many people who for cynicism or whatever reason have decided we don’t want to participate. We have got to take this system back.”