Redistricting commission

Jordi Comas of Lewisburg speaks during the first meeting of the state's redistricting commission -- a group formed by Gov. Tom Wolf last fall to come up with recommendations for how to better redraw the state's political maps.

WILLIAMSPORT — A variety of ideas for improving the state's voting maps were shared by the 40 people who attended the first meeting of the state’s redistricting commission on Thursday.

One thing seemed clear to Toby Short, a member of Fair Districts PA who spoke at the meeting — any of the ideas would be better than the “bizarre” way the maps are now drawn.

Pennsylvania’s Congressional maps are set in a piece of legislation passed by the General Assembly and approved by the governor. The state legislative maps are designed by a redistricting commission consisting of four legislative leaders and a fifth tie-breaking member.

“It’s a conflict of interest” to allow lawmakers to determine the boundaries of the districts they represent, Short said.

The redistricting commission’s meeting lasted about two hours and consisted of a series of panel discussions with residents.

The commission was announced last fall by Gov. Tom Wolf.

In creating the group, the governor said its mission would be “to explore ways that Pennsylvania could use policies, technology and data to curb gerrymandering and ensure fair maps.”

The group plans to hold another eight sessions before releasing a report by the end of the summer.

Republican leaders of the state Legislature have declined to participate, saying at the time the group was formed they “will not be props in (the governor’s) theater” and added that redistricting remains their job.

Residents who attended the session said that they feel like the way the maps are designed should be changed to make elections more competitive.

Sue Fulton, of Loyalsock, said that if voters thought elections were going more closely-contested there would be more interest that would translate into better voter turnout.

“I don’t know the answer,” she said. “I know a lot of people feel like their votes don’t matter.”

She added that the state’s existing political maps have resulted in congressional districts that are so large it’s difficult for voters to interact with their elected representatives in a meaningful way.

Fulton said she was “appalled” when she moved 80 miles from Clarks Summit to Lycoming County and then realized she was still in the same congressional district.

Jordi Comas, of Lewisburg, told the redistricting commission that he was one of the citizens named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit that spurred the state Supreme Court to toss the state’s congressional maps and redraw those political boundaries last year.

The lawsuit “treated the symptom but not the underlying cause” of the state’s gerrymandered maps, Comas said in an interview after the commission meeting.

“We have to create rules to protect ourselves from our political parties,” Comas said.

Redistricting commission chairman David Thornburgh said Thursday’s session attracted “thoughtful and sincere citizens.”

During the meeting, he said the commission’s aim isn’t to be political.

“We’re going to put in an enormous amount of time and effort,” Thornburgh said. “We want to make a difference.”

Eight other meetings are planned: In Erie on April 18; Pittsburgh on May 2; Reading on May 9; Altoona on May 16; Philadelphia on May 28; Bethlehem on May 29 and Wilkes-Barre on June 6. A meeting will also be held in Harrisburg but the date of that event hasn’t been set. All of the sessions will be from 4 to 7 p.m.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.