Action on PA’s new maps expected this week

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 1/12/22

HARRISBURG, PA — The commonwealth’s redistricting process this year has been characteristically contentious and partisan. Gridlock has found state officials running up against their …

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Action on PA’s new maps expected this week

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HARRISBURG, PA — The commonwealth’s redistricting process this year has been characteristically contentious and partisan. Gridlock has found state officials running up against their deadlines to produce a final product, but some important steps were expected to take place this week.

Officials have indicated that a final vote should take place on Wednesday, January 12. Readers can find more up-to-date information on how that vote went at https://www.riverreporter.com.

Redistricting occurs every 10 years after the census and refers to the redrawing of Pennsylvania’s legislative (state House and state Senate) and congressional (federal House) maps.

As the current procedure dictates, Pennsylvania’s congressional map follows a path similar to any bill moving through Congress: Both houses of the state legislature must approve it, but Gov. Tom Wolf has veto power if he considers the map to be drawn unfairly.

With a Republican-controlled House and Senate and a Democratic governor, the process was unlikely to run smoothly.

In December, the House State Government Committee put forth a preliminary congressional map created by former county commissioner and Republican redistricting advocate Amanda Holt. After some modifications, the committee promptly approved the map along party lines. Democratic members said they felt that they were left out of the process, while citizen advocates criticized the Republicans for pushing through a map without giving the public a chance to review it first.

In response, Wolf wrote a letter that made it clear he would not approve the map as it was currently drawn.

“The map has significant differences in population among districts, splits multiple communities of interest to improve the chance a Republican will win an election, and falls short on this basic measure of partisan fairness, among other concerns,” the governor wrote. “Pennsylvanians are looking for a fair election map drawn in an open and honest way. They neither want nor deserve a map drawn by self-serving politicians looking to feather their own nests along with those of their political friends.”

Should Wolf reject the map that lawmakers send him, the redrawing process is then simply turned over to the PA Supreme Court. A court-drawn map would not be without precedent. In 2018, Pennsylvania’s high court deemed the commonwealth’s congressional map to be unlawfully gerrymandered—drawn unfairly in order to benefit one party over the other—and redrew a more balanced one which the state has been using until now.

Plenty of Pennsylvanians feel that handing the redistricting process to the court system would not be a bad idea. In fact, two separate lawsuits—which have since been merged into one—filed by residents seeking a less politicized, more data-driven approach, have demanded that the State Supreme Court intervene immediately, rather than wait for a potential gubernatorial veto.

The state maps

For representation at the state level, the state uses a five-person panel known as the Legislative Reapportionment Commission. The group is made up of the Senate and House leaders from the two major parties, plus a non-elected chairman.

In December, the commission released preliminary maps for both houses of the General Assembly; the public now has until January 18 to file public comment and suggest revisions to these maps.

The proposed map for the state House was met with particular backlash from Republicans, who claimed that it unfairly benefited Democrats. While analysis finds that the proposal is likely to shift the balance of power significantly, it still scores better in overall fairness and compactness than the current map.

The reapportionment commission’s non-partisan chairperson Mark Nordenberg has since defended the preliminary map against what he called “baseless claims” that it was drawn to unfairly favor Democrats in future elections.

And anti-gerrymandering advocates such as Fair Districts PA have disagreed with Republican lawmakers who call the House map “an extreme gerrymander.” Fair Districts’ chair Carol Kuniholm called it “the exact opposite of gerrymandering” because, given that the previous map was biased toward Republicans, the new one effectively “undoes lines drawn for partisan advantage.”

While advocates aren’t calling these legislative maps gerrymandered, they do say there are improvements to be made before getting finalized. Following four feedback sessions last week on the proposed redistricting, it’s clear that many residents are hoping for improvements as well, specifically with regard to Hispanic representation in the legislature.

Many of the speakers last week singled out Allentown, a city with a large Latinx population that would be divided by the current Senate map. If Allentown and other similar cities were kept intact rather than split, testifiers argued Hispanic communities would have a better chance to elect politicians who represent their values and concerns in Harrisburg.

“I am here to remind you the importance of representation and the importance of having in Harrisburg diversity that represents the diversity in the state,” a speaker named Victor Martinez told the commission last week. “Once again, I’m here to remind you that Latinos represented 64 percent of the growth in the state… and in none of these seats is there a realistic chance of a Latino or a minority getting elected.”

The commission will be holding another public hearing on its proposed maps on Friday, January 14 and Saturday, January 15.  Residents can find registration information online at https://www.redistricting.state.pa.us.

For more on this story, click here.

UPDATE: House approves new maps

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