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Baer: The emerging story behind the story of Pennsylvania gerrymandering

The judicial/political mess over gerrymandered congressional districts just might present opportunities for greater citizen involvement in democracy.

David Thornburgh, president and CEO of Committee of Seventy, is pushing for citizens to draw the districts of their elected officials. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
David Thornburgh, president and CEO of Committee of Seventy, is pushing for citizens to draw the districts of their elected officials. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff PhotographerRead moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

No matter what happens in the legal scrum over gerrymandered Pennsylvania, there's activity behind the scenes promising better long-term politics here in the Keystone State.

Yes, the immediate fight over our Democratic Supreme Court's ruling last week that our Republican-friendly congressional maps are unconstitutional currently holds center stage.

The clock's ticking on the court's command that new maps be presented pronto by the GOP legislature and Democratic Gov. Wolf, or the court will make its own (presumably kinder to Democrats) maps.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court signals it might be willing to hear Republican arguments that the state court order should be stayed.

All this unfolds hard against filing deadlines for congressional races in what are certain to be madcap mid-term election primaries – if they happen as scheduled.

Yet whatever comes from pending rulings, appeals, lawsuits, countersuits, legislative action, etc. — and, instinctively, you just know chaos is coming – what lies ahead for certain is that new maps (or current ones, if they stand) will be replaced by another set of maps after the 2020 census.

In short, we face a potentially ugly multi-year story. But it may bring us benefits.

Here's why.

The issue will be newsworthy for a long time, hopefully gaining more public attention. And there's an effort underway to encourage greater public action.

The Committee of Seventy, Philly's historic nonpartisan good-government advocacy group, is about to roll out details on a statewide mapping competition (with four-figure cash prizes) open to anyone: students, seniors, activists, etc.

The committee will provide mapping tools and other data, and has a holding-space website ( with some details. It promises more will follow.

The goal is to get greater citizen input into a process currently the province of politicians who commonly skirt, or outright ignore, constitutional direction.

Committee chief David Thornburgh says, "No matter what judicial or political action takes place in the current case, as long as [political] operatives drive the process there's not going to be common sense."

He argues that even if the current state court order sticks, it's not a fix, it's a Band-aid.

That's because the state ruling uses the same language for drawing congressional seats as the state constitution mandates for drawing state legislative seats: don't split municipalities or wards.

The constitution (Article II, Section 16) says, don't split "unless absolutely necessary." The new court order says don't split "except where necessary."

So, says Thornburgh, since current state and congressional maps have tons of splits, the same court-approved constitution-dodging can continue.

"It will take an army of Amanda Holts to actually make a difference," he says. Hence the statewide mapping contest.

Amanda Holt? Remember her?

She was the Allentown piano teacher whose interest in puzzles and government led her to draw state legislative maps after the 2010 census that the state Supreme Court agreed were better than those made by pols.

The pol-drawn maps had more than 300 subdivision splits. Holt's had hundreds fewer. The court called her work "powerful evidence, indeed," and ordered a legislative redraw.

Final state maps still had (and have) more splits than Holt's. But she clearly steered the process closer to constitutional intent, and actual democracy.

Today, she's a Republican Lehigh County commissioner who still teaches piano — and still draws maps.

Last week, on her personal blog (, she offered what she calls an "impartially drawn" congressional map. It divides no municipalities, except for Philly because of its population size.

So is she back in the game?

"I'm really interested," she tells me, and likes the Seventy project.

"I think it's really important that citizens engage," she says, "That's what makes for better government. People are the government. By being informed, you make public officials, or whoever is drawing the maps, more accountable."

Thornburgh refers to Holt as "a heroine of do-it-yourself democracy."

The concept has appeal. Pushing it as a statewide competition is interesting. It could lead to ever-improving maps and a more democratic system, which would be, well, quite a story.

And worse case? Pretty good civics lessons in classrooms.