Pa. House GOP Commits to Public Meetings, Vows ‘Most Transparent’ Congressional Redistricting Process Ever

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The state's next congressional map will begin its journey through the legislature in the House and Senate State Government Committees, chaired by Rep. Seth Grove (pictured) and Sen. David Argall. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Philadelphia Inquirer

By Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA

HARRISBURG — A key Pennsylvania lawmaker committed Monday to transparency measures aimed at making the decennial redrawing of the state’s congressional map a more open process than in the past.

State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York) said his committee will hold at least eight public meetings across Pennsylvania and accept suggestions for the map through a new website. Those are central tenets of legislation introduced in recent years by State Rep. Wendi Thomas (R., Bucks) and backed by good-government groups including the Committee of Seventy and Fair Districts PA.

“This new process will prevent extreme partisan gerrymandering and promote accountability by the voters,” Thomas said Monday outside her district office in Richboro. “In these divisive political times, many people have lost faith in their political systems.”

Anti-gerrymandering advocates had pushed Republicans who control the General Assembly to put stricter guardrails in place ahead of this year’s redrawing of the state’s political maps. But Thomas’ legislation failed to advance in the House, while a companion bill in the Senate was gutted to focus solely on the congressional map.

As lawmakers departed for summer break, advocates declared redistricting reform dead and told Spotlight PA and Votebeat they would have to depend on leaders’ rhetorical promises of transparency.

The state’s congressional districts — which will drop from 18 to 17 next year because of sluggish population growth — are drawn by lawmakers and then presented to the governor for his signature. That map will begin its journey through the legislature in the House and Senate State Government Committees, chaired by Grove and State Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill).

Last decade, the final congressional map was introduced and approved by then-Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, in roughly a week. That map was thrown out and redrawn by the state Supreme Court in 2018 after the justices found it unfairly benefited the GOP.

“I don’t remember any public input this early on,” Grove said Monday of the process.

He will kick off a series of regional meetings later this month as lawmakers wait for the U.S. Census Bureau to deliver the population data in August needed to create new districts. Once those data are released, members of the public will be able to draw and submit their own maps.

Pennsylvanians will also be able to define their “community of interest,” a basic principle in redistricting that mapmakers should use when deciding which areas to keep together.

Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA, said the transparency measures and option for people to submit their own maps are positive developments.

But sections of Thomas’ bill that would have set criteria for mapmakers — including limits on splitting counties and a prohibition on plans that protect incumbents — were absent from Grove’s Monday announcement.

The public meetings and new website do “not safeguard the process” or “guarantee a fair outcome,” Kuniholm said. That’s why her group is training people to draw their own maps and give testimony at upcoming meetings — to show lawmakers “what good maps look like.”

Advocates are also counting on political checks and balances already in place. Both the executive and judicial branches are now controlled by Democrats. Gov. Tom Wolf will have the power to veto the map, while the state’s high court may intervene if Wolf and GOP leaders face a stalemate.

Grove, the author of a major election overhaul recently vetoed by Wolf, said he hopes “the governor engages with this process early on.”

“We are constitutionally mandated to get this done, so I think it’s all in our best interest to work together,” Grove said.

Asked for comment, Wolf’s office did not respond specifically to Grove’s pledge but said the “governor believes we must have a process that is free of partisan influences and gerrymandering so the interests of all Pennsylvanians remain the top priority.”

The measures announced Monday do not apply to the drawing of Pennsylvania’s state House and Senate maps, which is overseen by a panel of legislative leaders and an appointed chair.

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission’s current chair, Mark Nordenberg, recently said he wants citizens to be able to submit suggestions through the panel’s redistricting website. It held a public hearing Tuesday in Harrisburg.

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