In a few weeks, Pennsylvania will put in place new congressional maps that will take effect for the 2022 election cycle and determine residents’ government representation for the next decade. Whether these legislative districts are designed by lawmakers with input from residents and enacted by the governor or ultimately drawn by the court is still unknown.
The stakes are high, and the anticipation is real — for residents and candidates alike. It is a situation I know all too well and one I’m watching closely, along with others who want to ensure fair representation.
In 2018, after thoughtful consideration and discussion with my family, I decided to leave the state House of Representatives to run for Congress. At the time, I had served in the legislature for nearly 15 years, having spent four years as the House majority leader, one of the top-ranking positions in state government.
I firmly believe in the value of public service and wanted to continue my advocacy for issues important to my neighbors and the communities where I still live today in western Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, my campaign ended abruptly – not by the will of the voters, but because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found the way that the original maps were drawn and implemented in 2011 to be unconstitutional.
Suddenly, I lived in a different district than the one I knew so well and had planned to run for.
Deciding the boundary lines of congressional districts is not a simple process — especially in Pennsylvania.
State representatives and senators must craft their own versions of the maps, making them available for public comment. From there, lawmakers negotiate a final plan for approval. Once it passes, the governor can either sign the bill into law or veto it. That’s how it should be, but we’re inching closer once again to having the courts intervene, as lawmakers and the administration can’t find consensus.
There’s still hope.
Pennsylvanians got their first look at draft congressional districts in December. Residents now are reviewing the maps and submitting comments so lawmakers can make adjustments before voting on any final plan. That means what our future congressional districts look like for the next decade depends on you. There is still time for residents to make their voices heard.
Although efforts have failed over the years to change the map-making process and make it less partisan, the years-long push for reform succeeded in other ways. Residents are more informed and more engaged than ever before, and they recognize that districts that are designed more for politicians than the people they represent have handicapped our government.
Even today, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes politicking involved that voters do not always get a chance to witness or experience.
Members of Congress often will request that state lawmakers keep their current districts the same or make them more favorable for the next election. Lobbyists will advocate for certain districts to be drawn in a manner that benefits their clients. And partisan organizations – from both sides of the political aisle – often publicly argue for or against the proposed maps.
None of this is inherently bad. It just demonstrates that individuals and organizations working in or around government have a vested interest in what they want their congressional district to look like.
This year, the redistricting process presents a unique opportunity for both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as well as Gov. Tom Wolf, to work together. Elected officials and voters should want to have competitive congressional districts that are the result of serious public input, legitimate compromise, arduous work and respectful deliberation.
Competitive congressional districts mean there is a balance and no single political party has total control over a specific region. This will breed long-term civic engagement and encourage voter participation. After all, healthy – not divisive discourse – is the backbone of a thriving democracy.
Pennsylvania may find itself in the position where seven individual justices are establishing our state’s congressional districts. If it gets to that point, then the court has the duty and responsibility to achieve what the governor and lawmakers couldn’t do together, and that’s put forward new congressional maps that ensure fair representation across the commonwealth.
Given the contentiousness of our current political climate, there is far too much at stake for Pennsylvania to repeat history.
Dave Reed is the former majority leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. He served from 2003 to 2018 and represented the 62nd legislative district, encompassing large portions of Indiana County. He has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and economics from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in government administration from the University of Pennsylvania.