Pennsylvanians could help the state redraw its legislative districts this year.
“We’re trying to encourage a new level of engagement,” said David Thornburgh, managing director of Draw the Lines PA, a statewide effort to combat what the group calls unfair legislative redistricting. “We need participation from citizens who are interested in putting a need of our voters above partisan interests.”
Draw the Lines, along with Committee of Seventy, Fair Districts PA and the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania held a virtual town hall Feb. 17. Nearly 1,200 participants across the state registered for the event to learn more about the state’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission.
The LRC draws the state’s legislative districts every 10 years following the Census, using population and voter registration data. The commission is made up of five people – the majority and minority leaders of the PA House and the Senate and a fifth person not holding political office who is chosen by the other four.
Thornburgh said this system doesn’t work because it allows the LRC to gerrymander, or manipulate map boundaries to favor party lines. He said this splits counties among several districts and prevents fair elections by ensuring incumbents stay in office.
Luzerne County, for example, is split between six House districts and four Senate districts. Tioga County is entirely in the 68th House district, represented by Clint Owlett, and the 25th Senate district, represented by Chris Dush. Potter County is in the 67th House district, with the exception of Galeton Borough and Pike Township, which are in the 68th.
Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA who also spoke at the town hall, previously told this newspaper, “This essentially allows legislators to control the outcome of elections. They can split up counties depending how they know constituents vote to make sure the majority party keeps the majority. This means the voters have no voices.”
According to Draw the Line’s website, if the other four members can’t agree on the fifth, that person is selected by the state Supreme Court. Thornburgh said this has happened with the formation of every LRC since the first in 1971.
“In 2011, the committee put applications out to select a citizen, and only 13 people applied,” he said, adding that none of those residents were selected, and the court appointed Stephen J. McEwen Jr., a former state Superior Court judge.
A petition by Draw the Lines is calling for the state to again allow applications from residents. They’re also seeking residents who would actually be interested in applying to serve on the commission.
“If we’re successful and the four members of the caucus are willing to accept applications, it’d be great to see if we can get an application from each of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania,” said Thornburgh. “You could be named the fifth person on commission.”
The petition and more information is available at https://drawthelinespa.org/petition.
Draw the Lines is also encouraging residents to try their hand at district mapping through its annual contest. Following certain guidelines, contestants can draw maps for the PA House or Senate, with prize categories for youth, higher education students and adults.
“What’s great about this is all the young people who step up and say, ‘This is the democracy where I live and we want to contribute to the way they look,’” said Thornburgh, adding that the contests over the years have produced more than 1,500 maps.
Access contest rules and entry instructions at https://drawthelinespa.org/draw-a-map. The contest deadline is June 1.