Lessons Learned and Next Steps for Reform

The May 31 Zoom forum, Pennsylvania Redistricting: Lessons Learned and Next Steps for Reform, was attended by around 250 Pennsylvanians eager for change.

Watch the event on YouTube here.

The forum marked the launch of a new Pennsylvania Redistricting Table, with initial involvement from statewide good-government organizations:

Pennsylvania Voice, League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, Committee of Seventy, Draw the Lines, Common Cause Pennsylvania, NAACP - Pennsylvania State Conference, and Fair Districts PA.

Fair Districts PA Chair Carol Kuniholm began with a reminder that although we are all celebrating better maps for the decade ahead, there’s been no change in laws governing the process. Without reform, we have no assurance of better maps for the decades ahead.

PA Voice Executive Director Salewa Ogunmefun welcomed all with an overview of the work PA Voice conducted in the most recent redistricting cycle. Alongside partner organizations they worked with constituencies to hold education series and then asked the communities how they defined and drew their own lives on maps. These conversations informed what came to be known as Unity Maps, representing the voice and interest of over 700 PA residents that participated.

Kathay Feng, Common Cause US Vice President of Programs, provided an overview of redistricting around the country, identified best practices, and covered a few court cases. She noted that while there are some good bills under consideration in Congress, the solutions that have the potential to be enacted are at the state level.

Jonathan Cervas was appointed mapping consultant for the Pennsylvania Legislative Redistricting Commission in 2021. He was also appointed special master for New York’s redistricting in that same cycle. Jonathan opened by highlighting the self-interest legislative leaders necessarily have in the process. He noted that in contrast to Chair Nordenberg and his team, the partisan staff of legislative caucuses and political party operatives can and do work year-round, for a whole decade, to create the most ideal maps for their clients. A commission chair or special master needs a strong, experienced, non-partisan team to counter such partisan forces.

We had excellent questions from the audience!

Several asked how AI (artificial intelligence) might impact the map-drawing process. Jonathan noted, “The problem with AI is that it is only as good as what you feed into it, and human beings are still critically important for redistricting.” He provided insight into how computers inform redistricting.

The panelists answered questions about Michigan’s process, involving a newly created independent citizens commission. The audience asked how the process and final product impacted racial minorities and how to avoid manipulation of communities of interest within the framework of a citizens’ commission such as Michigan’s. The discussion surrounding communities of interest was lively and provided a range of ideas.

What can you do between now and the next redistricting cycle?

This event was the first of many discussions that the PA Redistricting Table is going to host. Look for more discussions and get involved with any of the organizations listed above.

We have 10 years of data to help inform our decisions. Holding discussions to better understand the data will help ensure we have the most informed PA voters heading into the next redistricting cycle.

It may seem far away, but the time will go fast. Getting something accomplished in the General Assembly is so convoluted, it will require sustained pressure from all of us.

Moderator and Panelists:

Salewa Ogunmefun, Executive Director of Pennsylvania Voice. Salewa drives Pennsylvania Voice’s vision and strategy, fundraising, compliance, and staff management. The organization has been a critical architect of an enhanced civic-engagement culture in Pennsylvania since 2010. Pennsylvania Voice has been on the leading edge working with partners to expand democracy and protect voting rights, including an effort that made Pennsylvania’s online voter registration system the best in the country.

Kathay Feng, Executive Director of California Common Cause. Kathay was the architect of California’s Citizens Redistricting Commission, leading the multi-year effort to organize the campaign that helped pass Propositions 11 and 20, creating the nation’s first independent citizens redistricting commission and a new community-focused process. Since then she has been active in Common Cause’s work across the country, as well as in other work, to transform elections and improve government accountability. With more than two decades of experience as a voting and civil rights lawyer, Kathay is most known for her leadership in redistricting efforts, challenging gerrymanders through litigation and helping to promote redistricting reform through ballot initiatives and legislative advocacy.

Jonathan Cervas is a post-doctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon’s Institute for Politics and Strategy. He’s a specialist in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and has worked as an assistant to a federal court Special Master in drawing remedial maps in redistricting cases involving minority rights. In 2021 he was appointed mapping consultant for the Pennsylvania Legislative Redistricting Commission and was an active participant in drawing the current PA House and Senate district maps. He has co-authored numerous articles on gerrymandering and redistricting with Professor Bernard Grofman, one of this country’s leading election law scholars, respected not only for his expertise but for his non-partisan approach.

Link to recording of forum