Letter to PA Legislator: Who will draw PA house and senate maps in 2021?

We sometimes hear “legislators are required to draw district lines.”

Do they?

PA house and senate districts are drawn by the LRC: the Legislative Reapportionment Commission.

Fair Districts PA Chair Carol Kuniholm is writing a letter a week to all PA legislators, and we are publishing those letters here. Please read Carol’s letter and then take a moment to write one of your own to your state representative and senator. For contact information, click here.

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC) is composed of the two majority leaders and two minority leaders, (or their deputies) and a fifth, supposedly a non-partisan moderator. The four can select the fifth, if they can agree. That has happened just once since the LRC was created by the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention in 1967-68.

If the four can’t agree on a fifth, that deciding vote is chosen by a majority of the PA Supreme Court.

The leaders do invite input from their 249 colleagues. In theory, the input could be about keeping communities of interests whole. But when the conversations are behind closed doors, the conversations are just as likely about which neighborhoods would make their seats safer, or what threatening opposition they might like to exclude. Not all input is put to use. Not all legislators are given safe seats. Stories abound of districts drawn off the map for purely personal reason and of whole areas drawn into strange shapes to provide a greater advantage to the party with the deciding vote.

Critics of the LRC include past legislators, retired judges and DAs and election integrity experts around the country. The process is one of the most partisan and secretive in the country. It puts far too much power in the hands of just a few leaders and undermines trust and accountability.

We’ve been told repeatedly that gerrymandering is the keystone of corruption and control in the Pennsylvania legislature. Every one of the four leaders who drew the lines in 1991 ended up in prison on corruption charges. The 2001 and 2011 gerrymanders drew special praise from national entities attempting to control election outcomes . Our secretive process has helped make PA a target for millions in outside dollars attempting to grab control of both the PA legislature and congressional redistricting processes.

The LRC can, and does, use partisan data: voter registration data, election outcomes, precinct turnout. Data used in the 2011 redistricting round was released in a 2018 lawsuit. Azavea, a member of our Fair Districts PA coalition, has put that data into visible form so voters can see the logic of our strangely shaped districts.

The General Assembly does not review the LRC maps before they’re finalized and has no approval vote. There is no possibility of veto by the governor. If Pennsylvanians believe that the maps are unfair, the only recourse is to appeal to the same court that chose the deciding vote. You may remember how this scenario played out in 2011 and 2012: a successful lawsuit resulted in slightly redrawn maps that are still considered among the most gerrymandered in the country.

You can see those gerrymandered maps on our website - but you’ll need a computer to see them. They don’t show up on a smaller device. Voters are often stunned the first time they study their own districts, then angry, then determined to do what they can to help put an end to our distorted districts. For all of us, this is personal. My own school district (Downingtown, in Chester County) is divided into five House districts. My own House District (HD 155) stretches through five school districts and splinters the borough of Phoenixville. A neighboring district wanders through SIX school districts in two different counties. Compact? No. Constitutional? Not at all.

If you’ve sponsored the bills we support (HB 22 and 23 and SB 1022 and 1023), thank you! If you haven’t, please spend some time with those maps linked above, then consider adding your name to the effort to put a better plan in place. Your constituents are waiting.

Carol Kuniholm
Fair Districts PA Chair

PS: You might have seen Speaker Mike Turzai’s University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law article defending the current LRC. We offer our own brief response to some of the arguments given.