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Democracy Works

135 EpisodesProduced by Penn State McCourtney Institute for Democracy/The Democracy GroupWebsite

Examining what it means to live in a democracy

35:30

One state’s fight for fair maps

Pennsylvania is one of several states trying to ensure fair congressional maps are drawn after the 2020 Census. As we say in the episode, redistricting is one of democracy’s thorniest problems. It’s easy to say you want a  map that’s fair, but far more difficult to determine what that actually looks like.

The Keystone State received a new congressional map in 2018 following a decision from the state Supreme Court. However, that was a temporary fix designed to counter partisan gerrymandering that occurred after the 2010 Census. Since then, several groups have been working to implement a more permanent change for the next map drawing in 2021.

One of those groups is a bipartisan Redistricting Reform Commission chartered by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. Penn State’s Lee Ann Banaszak, a professor of political science, was part of that commission and joins us this week to talk about how they tackled the question of fairness, and what they learned at public hearings throughout the state earlier this year.

Following in the footsteps of states like Arizona and California, the commission recommended that Pennsylvania create an independent 11-member citizens’ commission to develop maps that would be submitted to the legislature for approval.

The Pennsylvania House State Government Committee will hold a public hearing on the commission’s Sept. 18 at 9 a.m. in the Irvis Office Building in Harrisburg.

One more thing: We are hosting an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, October 22 and we would love to meet our listeners in the Washington area! The featured speaker is Penn State’s Abe Khan, the guest on our very first episode. He will be discussing the “Renaissance of the Activist Athlete.” More information and registration at democracy.psu.edu/dc.

Additional information

Redistricting Reform Commission report

Our interview with the Committee of Seventy’s Chris Satullo

Draw the Lines PA

Fair Districts PA 

Interview Highlights [7:09] Why is redistricting important to democracy?

In our electoral system, we elect people via a process of voters in a district vote for one person in that district. In the course of setting up those districts you determine a lot of how that legislature looks. What you have now in some places are the people who are being elected selecting their voters instead of voters selecting who’s going to represent them. And so the issue is one of representation on the one hand and also of kind of the democratic process of who’s making the decision.

[8:20] What are some of the factors that go into drawing a fair map?

The one that people think about most often is equal population, which means that each district is approximately equal size based on the most recent Census. Another important measure is compactness, which means you don’t want to draw districts that have unusual boundaries. One of the most famous examples of this is Pennsylvania’s “Goofy kicking Donald Duck” district that existed prior to the state receiving a new map in 2018. The Voting Rights Act provides representation as another important factor to consider, which connects to communities of interest. Communities that share the same interest and they should as much as possible be represented by the same individual.

[11:15] How did Pennsylvania’s redistricting commission gather public opinion?

There was a website where individuals could both answer questions and provide written statements if they wanted to, upload documents. Wee also ran an online survey that people could provide feedback on. And we also reached, tried to reach out extensively to different populations to make sure that we were really hearing all voices.

[12:20] What did you learn from the public hearings?

Uniformly, people were concerned about the way the re-districting process affected the way democracy works in Pennsylvania. That is, they were concerned that the current re-districting process created difficulties for voters, created difficulties for candidates and really depressed both turnout but also increased the mistrust of the legislature over the long term. So we heard a lot of those sorts of statements from people who engaged us in the public hearings.

There was a sense that incumbents were determining their re-election and that that was not democratic or a word we heard a lot was “fair.”  I think all of that kind of led to an increased mistrust or distrust of the process.

[18:12] Did you hear any differences in the concerns across partisan lines?

There were a few differences but what amazed me was the degree to which there was uniformity. Among the ordinary citizens there was general agreement that the process was problematic although they might see different parts of the process as problematic but that the process currently going on is problematic.  And secondly, there was uniform support for the idea of an independent Commission somewhere in that process.

There are different parts of the process that people have concerns about so I do think there are Republicans who had concerns about the most recent re-districting by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. I think they saw that as problematic. But in terms of creating a normal process by which re-districting could occur, I think there was actually quite a lot of agreement that having an independent Commission somewhere in that process would be good

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