Exposing anew the deep divides over how Pennsylvania’s political maps are drawn, a state commission formed by Gov. Tom Wolf released a report Thursday calling for overhauling the map-making process — and was immediately met with pushback from Republican lawmakers.

The recommendations by the Redistricting Reform Commission included forming an 11-member bipartisan commission that would submit three maps to lawmakers to choose from; setting specific nonpartisan criteria for how the lines should be drawn; and requiring all data be made public. The members were appointed by Wolf last year after the state Supreme Court overturned Pennsylvania’s congressional map and sparked a bitter political and legal fight.

“Now is the time for a fundamental reexamination of Pennsylvania’s process for drawing political maps,” the report reads.

Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, called it “a solid proposal” but warned that the devil is in the details. There are tweaks he would make to the system, he said, but overall the report lays out a series of good principles.

“They hit all the right points.… If they came up with something that was within this framework, I think Pennsylvania would be much better off than the system they have right now,” he said. “If what you try to guard against is aggressive gerrymandering, this goes a long way toward that.”

But recent attempts at reforming the state’s redistricting processes have died in polarized Harrisburg. And Republican lawmakers, who control both chambers of the state legislature, refused to participate as soon as the commission was announced, rejecting it as a Democratic governor’s attempt to take their power to draw political maps as they see fit.

The political reality

Republicans on Thursday continued to show no interest in the commission.

“The power to draw district lines for state House and Senate seats is strictly delegated to the legislature in our state constitution,” Mike Straub, spokesperson for the House Republicans, said in a statement. “We will take into consideration proposals to modernize the current process, but an 11-member panel will never be as representative of the commonwealth as 253 legislators and the governor is, nor will an 11-member panel allow for as much transparency and opportunity for input as the amendment process currently provides.”

Senate Republicans issued a statement criticizing Wolf’s commission as aimed at generating media coverage instead of working with the legislature.

“The governor’s media-driven effort has only served as a distraction to the previous work and ongoing efforts by the legislature to examine the redistricting process in Pennsylvania,” Jennifer Kocher, spokesperson for the Senate Republicans, said in the statement.

The political reality of a state as divided as Pennsylvania was an important consideration in the report’s conclusions, said David Thornburgh, the head of the Philadelphia-based good-government group Committee of Seventy and chair of the commission.

“We felt the commission’s recommendations should be tempered by the realities of Pennsylvania’s structure of governance and political process,” the report reads, noting that Pennsylvania has no citizen initiative process, so any changes must first go through the Assembly and then the governor.

Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott said the governor “continues to support transitioning redistricting to a citizens commission and he appreciates the suggestions from the commission’s report.”

David Thornburgh, left, president of the Committee of Seventy and chairman of the Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission, listens during one of the commission's public input meetings at Tindley Temple United Methodist Church in South Philadelphia on Tuesday, May 28, 2019.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
David Thornburgh, left, president of the Committee of Seventy and chairman of the Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission, listens during one of the commission's public input meetings at Tindley Temple United Methodist Church in South Philadelphia on Tuesday, May 28, 2019.

What the commission proposes

The commission proposes an entire model because the changes are meant to fit together for wholesale reform.

Legislative leaders and governor appoint 11-member bipartisan commission

Republican and Democratic leaders would each appoint five voting members, with neither side allowed to appoint more than two members of the same party.

That’s meant to force Republicans to nominate Democrats and vice versa, along with third-party or independent members. That alone might help bring moderation, Thornburgh said — “the red team will look for the faintest blue and the blue team will look for the faintest red” — though rules such as these can be gamed.

Members would have to be registered with the same political party for five years, preventing party-switching to cheat the system, and anyone who has held public office, worked on an elected official’s staff, or been registered as a lobbyist would be ineligible to serve on the commission.

The governor’s appointee would not be a voting member.

Mapmakers follow concrete guidelines

After holding public meetings, the commission would select from public submissions and also draw its own maps, which would aim for compactness. Where possible, political districts would follow town and county lines, keeping communities together.

The report also floated the idea of a state standard that would go beyond federal protections for the voting power of communities of racial minorities; however, it did not make a specific proposal.

Partisanship data off-limits

The commission would be forbidden from considering individuals’ addresses, registered voters’ political affiliation, and previous election results (except if required by federal law).

All data used or considered by the mapmakers would be made public before being used, and each map would include a short explanation of its values or goals, and quantitative measures of its compactness, contiguity, and town and county splits.

Commission members pick three maps and lawmakers make the final choice

The 10 voting members would first pick five maps, then narrow the list to three. Seven votes would be required to approve each map, requiring some degree of bipartisan consensus. Those three maps would be sent to lawmakers to pick from.

At this point, the lawmakers could be the entire Assembly, a subset of it, or some other group appointed by legislators. If the entire legislature is picking the map, a super-majority vote would be required.

Lawmakers would only be allowed to pick a map, not alter it. In the event of a stalemate, the power returns to the 11-member commission to pick from among the three maps.