Susan Wood wants people thinking about the way the lines of government are drawn.
So, even as the issue of redistricting gains traction throughout the United States, she has joined a movement in Pennsylvania that encourages people to learn more about how legislative districts on the state and federal levels are devised — and she wants people to get involved in revising the map.
Until a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in 2018 redrew the maps — temporarily — in the Commonwealth, “we had a really bad process for establishing districts,” Wood explained.
“I worked on a couple of campaigns with the Democratic Party and realized there was no way anyone could win who didn’t already hold the districts … because of the way they are drawn.”
It’s not a partisan issue, she stressed — because the same issue holds true whether it’s Republicans or Democrats in charge.
“The lines are not fairly drawn,” she said. “They’re drawn by the people who hold office to perpetuate themselves and their party. Both parties do it.”
That’s where Draw the Lines comes in. The movement, backed by the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit group, seeks to educate and involve voters in the redistricting process.
They, along with Fair Districts PA and Lebanon Valley College, are hosting a “mapathon” at 6:30pm on Thursday, Sept. 26, at the college’s Zimmerman Recital Hall to help people better understand the process.
If You Go…
Draw the Lines Mapathon at Lebanon Valley College
6:30pm on Thursday September 26
Free, RSVP’s encouraged. Register here.
“We’re inviting the public for several hours that night to first learn about the issue of redistricting and then, rather than just talking about it, use our software to begin drawing new district maps,” Justin Villere, chief of staff for the Draw the Lines project, explained.
“The voters, regardless if you are a Democrat or Republican, Independent or unaffiliated, are the best suited to redraw the district lines … because, regardless of what issue you care about — whether it’s climate change, gun control, Second Amendment rights or what have you — you’re not getting what you want out of Washington.”
State Senator Mike Folmer (R-Senate District 48), a Republican whose district covers Lebanon County and portions of York and Dauphin counties, backs the program and plans to attend the event, according to organizers. Folmer could not immediately be reached for comment. Update 9/17: A representative from Folmer’s office said that he now has a conflict and has not been able to confirm his attendance at the upcoming event.
“We have to do this together,” Wood said. “This is nonpartisan, but the people in office are Republican, so that’s who we have to work with.”
Wood was part of a local team that earned an honorable mention in a Draw the Lines competition last spring. Participants were asked to come up with a state congressional district map with 17 districts; 341 entries were judged on the number of districts, contiguity, equal population, competitiveness, majority-minority districts, compactness, population equivalence and county splits.
Team Lebanon Six, made up of team leader Wood and Faith Mumma, LeAnne Burchik, Michael Schroeder, Phil Stober, and Lois Herr, competed in the contest’s central region adult division. Their map focused on environmental concerns.
Wood, a retired hospital consultant from Mount Gretna, blames “the polarization of the parties, the polarization of everything” and “the lack of compromise” for many of today’s political woes. She contrasts the current situation to her childhood in Minnesota in the 1970s when her father, a state legislator, “used to work things out” with members of the other party.
“Now it’s no longer true,” she said. “They fight to the death. There’s no compromise.”
The purpose of the Sept. 26 event, she said, is education.
“It’s absolutely about having people understand how the maps are drawn,” she explained. “I know some really smart people who have absolutely no idea how messed up this is. They think the redistricting lines were fixed with the Supreme Court decision in Pennsylvania. That’s not true, it only fixes things until the 2020 census. Then it goes back into the back rooms for more of the same. We don’t want that. We need a new process.”
Gerrymandering, according to Villere, is “pushing parties farther apart, making it harder to get things done. It leads to a lot of gridlock and partisan disdain for the other side.”
Redrawing the lines in a fair and transparent manner “facilitates the democratic process,” he said.
It’s not a new issue, he said; the problem “has been around since the dawn of the republic.”
It’s become a bigger concern in recent years with “the increasing sophistication of big data,” Villere explained. With so much information on voters readily available — from the apps they download to the magazines they read — it’s easier to predict their voting habits and skew district lines accordingly.
“The internet has weaponized this,” he said. “This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue. It’s about who’s in power and who’s not in the room.”
The challenge, he said, is finding a fair solution.
“There’s no one right way to draw a map,” Villere said. What’s vital, he said, is a process that’s open and allows public involvement.
“The way the political atmosphere is shaping up for 2020, there’s motivation for both parties to do something,” he added.
The Draw the Lines project so far has generated several hundred district models, with participation from thousands of Pennsylvania voters, Villere said. But, he said, any real change to the process must go through the state Legislature — and it remains to be seen what lawmakers will do.
“They are definitely interested in hearing from their constituents,” he said. “In terms of legislation actually moving forward through the state House and Senate … it’s too early to tell.”
Meanwhile, he said, it’s important civics lesson for students and adults alike.
“The mapping takes time and it seems complicated at first, but if you have the tools and the data that the political pros have access to, you can do it, and you can do it more fairly,” he said.
“We’re not supporting any one map or any one proposal,” he added. “Increasing transparency and fairness is our goal.”
“You’re never going to get a perfect map,” Wood agreed, “but it can be less corrupt. We want civil dialogue about this. We want people to learn.”
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