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Piano teacher plays a different kind of redistricting plan

By   /   September 29, 2011  /   14 Comments

Analysts praise her plan, doubt it will hold much sway with commission
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — For Amanda Holt, it all began with a casual conversation between two friends, when she realized something didn’t make sense.
Holt, a piano teacher who lives in Lehigh County, discovered she is in a different legislative district than her friend — a neighbor who lives down the street. 
And she wanted to know why.
A year later she not only has her answer, but she’s pushing lawmakers to fix the way the state’s legislative districts are drawn. She drew her own version of the state legislative district maps — meticulously plotting out all 203 House districts and 50 Senate districts — while keeping existing county and municipal borders whenever possible.
In the legislative maps, which will be redrawn by a five-member commission this year, 42 of 50 state Senate districts are splitting counties as are 64 of 203 state House districts. The state House map also has more than 75 municipalities divided between multiple state House seats.
“I thought, well, is there a way to go in and try to do this without all those splits,” Holt said. "I wanted to see if it was practical to make districts with fewer splits.”
Holt said she was even more surprised when she found that the state constitution directly advises that existing political subdivisions should be respected when districts are drawn.
In some cases, the splits are necessary — cities such as Philadelphia and Allentown have far too many people to be contained in a single state House district with an average of 60,000 residents each — but many towns with fewer residents are still divided on the maps.
Holt’s hometown of Upper Macungie Township in Lehigh County is just such a place — split between state Rep. Gary Day, R-Berks, and state Rep. Doug Reichley, R-Lehigh. 
In fact, the district line runs down the middle of a main road in the town, meaning houses on opposite sides of the street are represented by different people in Harrisburg.
At the federal level, the township is similarly divided. U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-15th Congressional District, has most of the township in his district, but a single voting precinct lies in the district of U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-6th Congressional District.
Voters who have their towns or counties divided between districts have less influence in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., Holt said.
“If they don’t know who to go to, or if they have multiple senators or representatives in the same area, they don’t have anyone specifically advocating on their issues,” she said.
With the goal of eliminating those county and municipal splits, and using preliminary census data available in late 2010, Holt began constructing her new maps. She’s revised them twice to reflect updated data available this year.
Holt said she hopes her maps will encourage the state’s legislative redistricting commission to abide by the state constitution when they redraw the district lines later this fall.
And she’s caught the attention of the commission, which is charged with redrawing the state House and state Senate districts following the national census every 10 years. The commission invited Holt to testify at the first of two public hearings earlier this month.
The Legislative Reapportionment Commission members are Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester; Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny; House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny; and House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny. The fifth commission member is former state Superior Court Judge Stephen McEwen, who was appointed by the Supreme Court to be commission chairman after the other four members could not agree on a fifth.
The commission has the final say on the state legislative maps and does not need approval from the governor or General Assembly.
The commission pledged earlier in the year to make the process — which has been roundly criticized in the past for being a closed-door operation — more open and transparent. To that end, and thanks largely to advances in technology during the past decade, all data used by the commission is available online for the first time.
But even with the information being available, commission members were impressed with Holt’s dedication.
“Making the data easily accessible does not mean that drawing complete maps is easy,” said Erik Arneson, Pileggi’s spokesman. “Ms. Holt obviously spent many hours developing the maps she presented to the Legislative Reapportionment Commission. We value her input.”
And unlike the staffers who will carve out the new districts later this year in some back room of the state Capitol, Holt did not use any elaborate mapping software — just the available U.S. Census data, a spreadsheet and her digital graphic design skills.
That’s not to say she’s entirely inexperienced in the political game. Holt is a member of the Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania and a judge of elections for her precinct.
Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a group calling for a more open and transparent redistricting process, applauded Holt’s proposed maps, even though some districts could be more compact by splitting counties in certain circumstances.
“I think she has really done an amazing job, and my hat is off to her,” Kauffman said. “I think her (maps are) much closer to what an independent citizens’ commission would draw up.”
In some cases, splittting counties between districts makes sense when a “community of interest” may cross county lines, Kauffman said, but the Holt proposal is far better than anything he expects to see from the commission, at least if history is any guide.
“All you have to do is look at the maps (from previous commissions). They just cracked municipalities all over the state, and for nothing more than political gain,” Kauffman said.
Thomas Baldino, a professor of political science at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, tipped his hat to Holt as well, but remained doubtful that her plan would carry much influence with the commission.
Aside from ensuring relatively equal population in each district, the most important issue in drawing the map is the political considerations, he said.
“I think the chances that we’ll see anything close to (Holt’s proposal) is very remote,” Baldino said. “I certainly wouldn’t bet my house on it.”
Holt said she is not cynical enough to believe one political party or the other has an advantage from the current district map. But after a year of studying the state’s strangely carved districts, she believes voters are the real losers.
“It should not favor the political parties, but should favor the voters. And it really should depend on where the voters live,” Holt said.