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Redistricting Panel Hears Testimony in Pittsburgh

At a recent public hearing in Pittsburgh, citizens urged the state's legislative redistricting commission to draw district borders that are fair to women voters and legislators, and to refrain from dividing "communities of interest" with political lines.

Pennsylvania's 2011 Legislative Reapportionment Commission heard nearly three hours of testimony at Duquesne University on Wednesday. The panel, composed of the four legislative caucus leaders and a Superior Court Judge, will decide the boundaries of 203 House districts and 50 Senate districts by mid-November.

The Pennsylvania Constitution calls for the districts to be "compact," "contiguous," and based on population, though that is not always the case.

Several of the speakers accused prior redistricting commissions of "gerrymandering," or dividing up districts based on voters' party affiliations. Vice President Annette Shimer of the Pittsburgh League of Women Voters said the panel shouldn't be allowed to consider voter information when redistricting.

"Representative democracy depends on voters freely choosing their elected officials," said Shimer. "But when, as under the current system, politicians ensure election outcomes by choosing their voters, our system does not work as intended. Our elections should be competitive."

Other testimony focused on the representation of women in the state legislature. Allison Lowe, chair of Carlow University's Department of Political Science, said women make up 52% of Pennsylvania's electorate but just 17% of the General Assembly — ranking 42nd in the nation. Lowe said she's concerned the redistricting process could push some of the state's few female legislators out of office.

"Those who are newest, the few who have served longest, and other vulnerable seats are quick to disappear in the strategies of redistricting," said Lowe. "What is good for the partisan 'goose' may not be good for the representative 'gander,' so to speak."

The Pittsburgh public hearing was one of three to take place before the Reapportionment Commission draws a preliminary map. Panel member and House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said the process is moving quickly, and he expects to be finished before the constitutionally-imposed deadline of November 17.