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Start now to ensure fair voting maps after 2030 census (opinion)

Pennsylvania’s Congressional districts. (Source: Dave’s Redistricting)

Legislative voting districts are redrawn every 10 years following the national census. For decades most voters paid little attention unless they found themselves in an unfamiliar district.

Now, new mapping technologies, advocacy groups like my organization, Fair Districts PA, and lawsuits in multiple states have brought greater attention to the age-old problem of gerrymandering: politicians drawing district lines to benefit themselves and their party.

Pennsylvania’s infamous “Goofy Kicking Donald” Congressional district. (Source: WHYY)

In the decade following the 2010 census, Pennsylvania was among the most gerrymandered states in the nation. Congressional District 7, slicing five southeast PA counties, was nicknamed “Goofy Kicking Donald” by some, “Spin Art” by others. It was on every shortlist of worst gerrymanders in the country.

That district was just one indicator of a strategic effort to control electoral outcomes. The Republican State Leadership Committee, or RSLC, bragged in multiple places about its successful control of the Pennsylvania mapping process.

Their REDMAP 2010 report, still available online, heralded a $1 million investment in state House races in 2010 that yielded control over Pennsylvania’s 2011 redistricting processes. The celebrated result: a 13-5 Republican majority in Pennsylvania’s U.S. House delegation, even when statewide Democratic candidates won by 5% to 9%.

In 2018, successful litigation by the League of Women Voters and the Public Interest Law Center overturned the 13-5 advantage, yielding new districts that produced 9-9 election results for U.S. House seats in 2018 and 2020. Yet by various metrics the state House and Senate districts of the last decade were among the most distorted in the country.

Thanks to tireless citizen advocacy and a fortunate balance of power between the legislature, then-Gov. Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Pennsylvania is now enjoying better maps, according to most objective criteria, than was the case in the past several decades.

Even so, Pennsylvania’s current partisan redistricting processes, combined with lax campaign finance laws, make every legislative candidate an expendable pawn in the continuing national chess game to capture a Congressional majority.

Slick mailers misrepresenting incumbents’ voting records, last-minute TV ads targeting key districts: All put Pennsylvania legislators at risk and yield outcomes unlikely to represent voters well or create incentive for legislators to address the pressing needs of our commonwealth.  

Efforts to change Pennsylvania’s redistricting process date back to the 1980s, with multiple bills introduced in almost every session since. None has ever made it to a final vote.

Real, lasting change will require better rules in law and a process that removes the conflict of interest that currently allows legislative leaders too much control over district maps, colleagues and electoral outcomes. 

On April 10, state Reps. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton, and Mark Gillen, R-Berks, held a press conference in the Capitol rotunda to announce the introduction of House Bill 1776. On May 2, state Sen. Tim Kearney, D-Delaware, circulated a cosponsor memo for a similar bill he plans to introduce.

Both would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to create an Independent Redistricting Commission with strong requirements for transparent public process and prioritized mapping criteria. 

Changing the state constitution is a long, difficult process. The same language must be passed by both House and Senate in two consecutive sessions, then placed on a ballot in a public referendum.

Pennsylvania does not allow citizen-initiated public ballot questions, which means changes to take away political leaders’ redistricting power must go right through those same political leaders.

As legislators supportive of redistricting reform have made clear, it is only possible if enough citizens make enough noise and find ways to hold leaders accountable. That must start now, or politicians will continue to draw districts to benefit themselves and their cronies to the detriment of voters and communities.

Ask your legislators to cosponsor H.B. 1776 and Kearny’s bill, and ask your legislative candidates where they stand on redistricting reform. Visit for more information and join over 106,000 fellow Pennsylvanians, from every party and every part of the state, in signing our petition in support of an independent redistricting commission.