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The Redistricting Controversy in Pennsylvania and the Importance of the Public Voice: Part I

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sean L. Ziller 
September 7, 2019

The Pennsylvania Capitol Building

In a late January 2019 article in PA Times entitled, “Social Equity and Redistricting,” Grant E. Rissler comments on recent state-wide redistricting efforts, citing developments in the Commonwealth of Virginia as a particularly relevant example, and the impacts these processes have on social equity. Mr. Rissler ties concepts of equity to the statement made at the start of the article: that we, as a nation, have continually striven to achieve the, “One person, one vote,” potential of our electoral system. However, growing partisan conflicts related to redistricting have, “Highlight[ed] potential ways for our system to fall short of such an equitable aspiration.” Fast-forward six months and the topic of redistricting is still being debated across the country—whether legislatively or within state courtrooms. Following the Supreme Court’s decision this past June in which a 5-4 majority determined that the issue of gerrymandering lies beyond the reach of federal courts, individual states now have a greater onus placed upon them in deciding increasingly complex cases of redistricting. One state in which the topic is no more ardently debated is the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Notoriously a pivotal battleground state, Pennsylvania became even more critical as a result of shifting voter trends both during and after the 2016 presidential election. While the Commonwealth did reelect its Democratic Governor for a second term in 2018, both houses of the General Assembly—and therefore the lawmaking agenda —remain controlled by Republicans. This has positioned the topic of partisan gerrymandering, and debate over the proper and equitable methods of redistricting, front and center of many legislative fights. While Governor Tom Wolf has still striven to weigh in on the issue of redistricting, his intervention and direction has led many in the opposing party to deem his actions as part of a larger, “Grandstanding,” effort, according to the Associated Press.

The escalating political divide within the state on this issue does not make Pennsylvania unique, however. As highlighted by David A. Lieb in the article, “Gerrymandering Lawsuits Are Pending in a Dozen States,” instances of gerrymandering—and the role of state lawmakers—have now regularly been forced to come under judicial review. Related lawsuits over gerrymandering are pending in several key election states including Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.

Back in Pennsylvania, a report by the Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission, formed by Governor Tom Wolf in an effort to produce recommendations that would allow for the redrawing of congressional and legislative districts, has formed the basis of much of the recent outcry from Republican state leaders. For example, one proposal offered in this report encourages the formation of maps that would be, “Drawn and revised by an 11-member bi-partisan commission appointed through a public process by the leaders of the General Assembly and the Governor…” Republicans, however, believe that this 11-person commission, if established, would not be representative of the wider populace of the state nor offer the transparency necessary as part of such a pivotal democratic process.

Regardless of one’s political persuasion or opinion toward the developments unfolding in Pennsylvania, however, several poignant observations are made in the Redistricting Reform Commission’s report that would be valuable to any political leader or, even, apolitical public administrator. The Commission, in the process of developing this report, surveyed citizens within the state as to their view of the electoral process. As detailed in the report, the current degree of partisan gerrymandering has had an increasingly negative impact on the minds of Pennsylvania residents:

“They [Pennsylvania citizens] are unhappy with the way congressional and state legislative districts divide their communities. They often feel that our political system, if not broken, is ‘fixed’—that it was built to serve the interests of those who work in it, not theirs.”

While highlighting a public perspective toward redistricting, an argument can be made that this attitude is applicable to the public’s view toward the wider public sphere, no matter how far from the centers of political activity. Likely emblematic of public opinion found across the country, what can we do, as public administrators, to at the very least begin to help turn trending public outlook?

Regardless of its conclusions, the methods through which the Redistricting Reform Commission in Pennsylvania gathered certain datasets is noteworthy. While redistricting may remain contentious, citizen confidence levels in the greater bureaucratic “system” can be evaluated and restored in the same way the Commission determined the statewide public attitude toward the above topic; through direct, human interaction. It’s the successful completion of our jobs and the efficient and effective delivery of public service to our respective constituencies, while also routinely measuring that delivery. As it pertains to the current state of gerrymandering, citizens nationwide want to be sure that their government still operates competently, despite political backbiting in their state capital or districts that even they may view as drawn unfairly. Ultimately, this discussion points toward another key concept: similar to solving the, “Issues of the day,” in public service management, answers to the outstanding questions of redistricting will be found by reaching out to one source in particular: the people.  

Author: Mr. Sean L. Ziller is a policy analyst / consultant with Conduent State and Local Solutions, Inc. in Philadelphia. He possesses a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science – King’s College (PA) and a Master of Public Administration – Penn State University. All opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer. He can be reached at [email protected]


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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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