At the outset, it’s important to point out that almost everything about the redistricting process is complicated, whether it’s how district lines are drawn, how people are selected to draw those lines, or how to change the system itself. But it is clear—there is a problem.
Every ten years, after the national census is complete, all fifty states get to work redrawing their state and federal legislative districts. In principle, the process is meant to produce a map that will deliver the public representatives that reflect the changing geographic distribution of the state’s population. In practice, however, it ends up being a process where elected officials pick their voters rather than voters pick their elected officials.
In over ⅔ of states, the state legislatures pass a law that redraws their own district maps. However, Pennsylvania’s process is even more biased. The commonwealth is one of only seven states where state legislative districts are drawn by a so-called “politician commission,” which puts redistricting not in the hands of the legislature as a whole, but in the hands of just the four caucus leaders in the General Assembly, and a fifth member, who those four select. This supra-legislative body is called the Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC).
Systems like this lead to what is called gerrymandering: Manipulation of the boundaries of an electoral district to favor one party or group. Pennsylvania’s constitution tries to protect against this by requiring that, “Unless absolutely necessary no county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward shall be divided in forming either a senatorial or representative district.”
However, during the last redistricting process, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the state legislative map, or ‘Final Plan,’ that the LRC proposed because, “…the number of fractures across the Commonwealth was considerably higher in the Final Plan than [was necessary. This]… suffices to show that the Final Plan is contrary to law.” The federal districts have also been proven to be gerrymandered, thanks so a mathematical assessment conducted by a team of professors from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.
Since elected officials are motivated to retain their seats and, as party leaders, LRC members are especially motivated to maximize the chances that their party will stand in the majority, it should come as no surprise that Pennsylvania suffers from gerrymandered districts.
The Current Process
Article II, Section 17 of the state’s constitution lays out our redistricting process. It begins when the LRC is constituted, usually in February the year following the U.S. Census. The President pro tempore of the State Senate and the Speaker of the State House certify the leaders of each party in both houses of the General Assembly, aka caucus leaders, as the four automatic members, who must then choose the fifth member, who will serve as chairman. The caucus leaders have to do this within forty-five days of their certification, if they fail to do so, then the State Supreme Court is required to appoint the chairman within thirty days after that deadline. Once the LRC is finalized, the commission then appoints its technical staff and legal advisors.
The next step in the process occurs when the U.S. Census Bureau sends Pennsylvania’s Legislative Data Processing Center (LDPC) the state’s population data. The LDPC is an agency of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Oversight of the LDPC is provided by a committee consisting of four members of the House, four members of the Senate, the Secretary of the Senate, and the House Parliamentarian.
By federal law, the state must receive the census data no later than April 1st the year after the census was conducted (which is right around the time the full membership of the LRC must be finalized). The LDPC reviews and organizes the data with a contractor that provides technical assistance, and then presents it to the LRC as “usable.” In past redistricting years, the LDPC has taken anywhere from a matter of weeks to several months to present “usable” data.
Once the LRC has accepted the data from the LDPC, the commission gets to work drawing up a preliminary redistricting plan. The LRC holds public hearings in a few different locations across the state to solicit feedback, which is intended to guide their drafting. The LRC must then vote to approve the preliminary plan, at which point, the commission then holds additional hearings to consider citizens' comments and objections. Finally, the LRC votes to approve a Final Plan.
From the day the Final Plan is approved, within thirty days, any “aggrieved person” can file an appeal directly to the State Supreme Court objecting to any districting they see as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court then considers those appeals and may—though rarely does—reject the LRC’s Final Plan and require the commission to go back and draw a new map. The Supreme Court assesses the constitutionality of the map based on four factors:
Political Coherence: Does the map abide by the state’s constitutional requirement that, "Unless absolutely necessary no county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward shall be divided in forming either a [state] senatorial or representative district”?
Equal Population: How equal in population are each of the districts?
Compactness: Do district lines take nonsensical zigzags or do they look more well-rounded?
Minority Protection: Does the map uphold Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to make sure minority-majority districts are respected without “packing"?
Currently six states have independent redistricting commissions that are largely free from the influence of elected officials (Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, and Washington). Ultimately, in order to avoid to the intentional gerrymandering of our current politically driven process (and avoid the ugly politics of court-ordered changes to districts) Pennsylvania will need to amend its constitution to create an independent redistricting - ideally one which will draw districts for Congressional as well as General Assembly districts.