We are asking the Legislative Reapportionment Commission to apply LACRA transparency to restore trust and ensure a fair, transparent redistricting process. We sent this letter to Chairman Nordenberg and cc’d the legislative members of the commission.
Dear Chairman Nordenberg:
Fair Districts PA congratulates you on your selection as the person to lead the process of redrawing the Commonwealth’s Senate and House districts for the next decade. Your appointment as chair of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC) means the commission is now at full complement with the other four members having been certified due to their positions as leaders of their respective caucuses in the General Assembly.
We assume that the state Supreme Court chose you for this important role because of your well-deserved reputation as a fair, strong and visionary leader – as Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, Dean of the University’s law school, Chair of the Institute of Politics, as a board director of several major corporations and a leader in service to your community. You clearly have all the qualifications and experience needed to ensure that the redistricting process is fair and transparent and that legislative maps are not gerrymandered for partisan advantage.
But for those hopes to become reality, it might mean you first have to define your own role as chairperson.
We already know what the four legislative leaders expect from the chair. As they said in their joint letter to the Supreme Court: “The chair should be a fair and neutral arbiter of this process, essentially a baseball umpire calling balls and strikes.” They further described your role as a “tie-breaker” who will resolve disagreements among the four partisan members.
That description fits well when you consider how the LRC has operated historically. While the commission employs professional and administrative staff, those employees have not been involved in producing district maps. Instead, each of the four leaders has run their own secretive map-drawing operation often using different mapping technologies. Predictably, each proposed map has been carefully drawn to protect most incumbents of one political party and to maximize opportunities to pick off seats currently held by the opposing party. The chairperson is only expected to be the “tie-breaker,” meaning that eventually he will have to choose a side.
It doesn’t have to be that way. There is nothing in the Constitution that prevents the chair from taking an active leadership role in the mapping process and in assuring that citizens have meaningful input into how the lines are drawn. You won’t be surprised to learn that Fair Districts PA has a few suggestions about how that might work. Respectfully, we recommend the following:
First, hire a professional staff with experience in the legal and practical aspects of redistricting. This could include hiring your own mapping consultant to advise you on maps proposed by the four leaders and even to produce your own recommended redistricting plan.
Second, focus on the website, both in terms of the information available to interested citizens as well as their ability to submit comments and proposed maps through a website portal. Michigan’s redistricting portal is an excellent model. Proposed legislation (SB 222 / HB 22) currently pending in the General Assembly would require the LRC to also post all the data used in the mapping process. There is no reason why the LRC cannot do that voluntarily without waiting for a legislative mandate.
Third, voters want transparency in the redistricting process, but they also want to believe the LRC values their input. It’s not enough for the LRC to just allow citizens to submit comments or testimony, then watch as the commission votes to approve maps drawn behind closed doors and without explanation. Voters want to know that their voices were heard and the reasons why any lines were drawn that divide communities. These matters should be addressed by the LRC in a public meeting before final maps are approved and in a written report filed along with the maps.
Fourth, as chairperson, you can take the lead to stop the practice of prison gerrymandering which unfairly distorts representation by counting prisoners as residents of their place of incarceration rather than of their home communities. The PA Election Code clearly states that incarcerated individuals shall be deemed to be residents of the place where they were last registered to vote or at their last known address. It is our understanding that the Department of Corrections currently has home addresses for individuals incarcerated in state facilities. The LRC should take the steps necessary to adjust data received from the Census Bureau so that districts accurately reflect the number of residents, including those temporarily confined in state prisons.
Again, please accept our congratulations and best wishes as you take on this critical role as Chair of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission. Fair Districts PA would welcome any opportunity to assist you and your fellow commissioners.
Carol Kuniholm, Fair Districts PA Chair
On behalf of the Executive Committee
this letter was also sent to the legislative members of the LRC, Senators Kim Ward and Jay Costa and Representatives Kerry Benninghoff and Joanna McClinton.