California’s citizen-led redistricting process offers lessons for Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania may have a harder time shaking politics from its redistricting process than California did 10 years ago.
Voters there opted in 2008 to create an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. The state auditor winnowed 36,000 applicants to 36, and then selected eight through a lottery. Those eight chose six more, taking care to reflect the state’s racial, gender and geographical diversity. Then the commission drew new legislative and congressional districts, incorporating feedback from 2,700 people who came to public meetings and 22,000 who wrote.
“Budgets are passed on time now. There’s more bipartisan legislation,” Cynthia Dai, a Democratic member of the state’s commission, said last week in Pittsburgh.
Dai was one of three members of California’s commission who spoke at an event organized by groups advocating for a citizen-led process in Pennsylvania.
Efforts to replicate California’s process in Pennsylvania flamed out in the state House after State Government Committee Chairman Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, gutted two related bills, replacing the citizen proposals with language to give the Legislature even more power over the process than it has now.
A proposal in the state Senate cleared a committee vote last week, but senators amended the bill to reserve for themselves the final say over who gets on the 11-member commission, and made other changes.
“It goes from an independent citizens redistricting commission to an appointed redistricting commission,” said Micah Sims, president of Common Cause PA, a group advocating for redistricting reforms.
Still, the group supports the bill as an alternative to the current system in which state legislators redraw districts after the Census every 10 years.
Across the country, elections have become less competitive and more favorable for Republicans since 2010, according to a study by the Public Policy Institute of California.
In California, where Democrats were the dominant party and resisted change to the redistricting process, elections became more competitive after the commission redrew the districts.
Fourteen percent of the state’s congressional elections since 2011 were decided by margins of less than 10 percentage points, while 6 percent of the races for Congress were that close in the decade before, according to the study. The trend held for the commission-drawn state House and Senate districts.
The increase in competitiveness was a side effect, not the commission’s objective. Their main priority, after ensuring districts had equal populations and weren’t drawn in overly complicated shapes, was to keep communities with similar interests in districts together.
“Our maps were more compact, less likely to split cities and counties and neighborhoods, more representative of communities of interest,” Dai said.
The commission created the state’s first districts in which Asians were the majority, she said. African Americans told commissioners they didn’t want districts drawn so that they would be the majority — they predicted they would lose representation since African Americans in the state tend to be more politically active than other groups.
And in the state’s wine country, the commissioners adjusted boundaries to include winery warehouses in the same districts as the vineyards, said Stanley Forbes, a member of the commission who is not registered with either party.
Forbes said the commission’s biggest achievement was increasing voters’ faith in elections. The state had a 75 percent turnout rate in the 2016 election, the highest rate since the 2008 election. None of the state’s congressional districts switched parties in 2016.
In Pennsylvania, the GOP was in the majority during redistricting after the 2010 Census. Under their map, Republicans held 13 of the state’s 18 congressional districts. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled early this year that the map was unconstitutionally gerrymandered to benefit Republicans and redrew it with help from a Stanford Law School professor.
Reactions to the court’s action appeared to deepen the partisan divide in Harrisburg, with many Republicans arguing that the court had overstepped its bounds. But some top Republicans, including House Majority Leader Dave Reed and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, have suggested they support changes to the redistricting process.
The Senate bill, as amended, doesn’t include a guarantee that the commission will reflect Pennsylvania’s diversity of race, gender and geography, Common Cause’s Sims said, and it subjects the commission’s maps to votes of the Legislature if the commission can’t agree on them.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said he hopes to make more changes to the bill that would push it back toward the legislation’s original intent. He said he expects a floor vote in early June.
After that, the bill would go to the House, where Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, would decide whether to assign it to Metcalfe’s committee or another committee. Metcalfe said in a Facebook post last month: “I block all substantive Democrat legislation sent to my committee and advance good Republican legislation.”
The legislation needs to pass both chambers by mid-July in order to be in place by the redistricting that will follow the 2020 Census, Costa said.
Sims said Common Cause would not support much more watering down of the bill.
“We’re barely at the point where we can breathe on this one,” he told about 80 people who attended the meeting in Pittsburgh. “If it were to go even further, well, we would have to do something else.”