New district maps cause contention

PA Republicans call bias

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 12/28/21

HARRISBURG, PA — Pennsylvanians got a glimpse at what their new legislative maps could look like after this year’s redistricting process, and the state’s top Republicans are not …

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New district maps cause contention

PA Republicans call bias

Posted

HARRISBURG, PA — Pennsylvanians got a glimpse at what their new legislative maps could look like after this year’s redistricting process, and the state’s top Republicans are not happy with what they saw.

As currently proposed by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission—a five-person panel tasked with redrawing the state House and Senate districts—the new maps would significantly tilt the scales away from Republicans, who have enjoyed a partisan advantage in elections for years, and lean in favor of Democrats.

Some quick definitions

Redistricting is a sticky situation because the shape and size of districts has the power to establish major imbalances of power between the two major parties and can possibly disenfranchise minority or lower-income voters. Maps that are drawn unfairly to clearly benefit one party over another are considered “gerrymandered.”

“Packing” and “cracking” are two of the most common ways to create such unfairly drawn, or gerrymandered, maps. Packing refers to lumping many voters from one party into a single boundary, thereby reducing that party’s representation in Congress. Conversely, cracking refers to splitting apart a party stronghold into several different sections so that those voters are kept in the minority.

Gerrymandering can have other considerations as well, like incumbency. Lawmakers redrawing the maps tend to avoid shaping districts in a way that pits two sitting representatives—especially of the same party—against each other in a future election.

Gerrymandering can occur on congressional maps (which dictate the districts of federal representatives) and legislative maps (which dictate the districts of state representatives and senators).

Republican reaction

The reapportionment commission is made up of two top-ranking Republicans, two top-ranking Democrats and a non-partisan chairman, Mark Nordenberg, a legal and public policy expert from the University of Pittsburgh. The commission has voted through its preliminary maps; now PA residents have until mid-January to file comments and recommend changes.

While the state Senate map passed the commission unanimously, Republicans pulled no punches when berating the House map as currently drawn. Commission member and state House majority leader Kerry Benninghoff called it an “extreme partisan gerrymander.”

“There is absolutely no way that I can support this gerrymandered map. No way,” Benninghoff said. “There are two components vital to the state redistricting process here in Pennsylvania: the Constitution and communities of interest. This plan blatantly disregards both.”

The Republican party controls both houses of the General Assembly, despite having a minority of registered voters statewide. The current House map has kept Republicans comfortably dominant, with a 113-90 seat advantage over Democrats. The newly proposed map is projected to create about 102 districts that lean Democratic.

Benninghoff objected specifically to the splitting of several “traditionally Republican areas,” including Harrisburg, Scranton, Lancaster and State College. He also complained that the preliminary map pits 12 Republican incumbents against each other in future elections, while only doing the same with two Democrats.

“I find it hard to believe this is some sort of mistake or oversight,” he told the commission.

Following a vote on December 16, the preliminary House map passed the commission in a 3-2 vote along party lines, with Nordenberg breaking the tie in favor.

While the preliminary Senate map was not subject to the same fervent opposition as the House map, lawmakers would still like to see changes. State Sen. Lisa Baker, who represents parts of Lackawanna, Luzerne and Pike counties; and all of Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming counties, has concerns with how the new map could potentially alter her district.

“For the past 10 years, the 20th Senatorial District has functioned well as a community of interest.  It may not look elegant on a map, but the perspectives and concerns of families are fairly similar from one end to the other,” she said. “Population shifts obviously dictate that the map will change for nearly every district.  However, there are many troubling aspects to the newly proposed map, including the way that the Wyoming Valley is split between four separate Senate districts.”

Scientific analysis

Fortunately, residents don’t have to take their representatives’ word for it whether their voting districts have been drawn fairly or not. There are a number of online tools designed to scientifically analyze these maps.

One such tool, https://www.davesredistricting.org, rates district maps on five criteria: competitiveness, minority representation, compactness, splitting and proportionality.

The preliminary House map scored “very good” in a couple of the categories— with minimal county/district splitting and high proportionality. But in terms of “competitiveness,” it received a “very bad” rating.

The map holds up similarly against other analyses, like the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. The project gave the House map a “C” grade overall, concluding that it had a Democratic bias. Looking at specific categories, the map earned a “B” for minimizing splits and prioritizing compactness, but it received an “F” for competitiveness.

Public comment

Pennsylvania residents now have the opportunity to view the proposed redistricting maps and tell the reapportionment commission how they feel about them. Those who wish to submit public comment or a self-drawn map for consideration can do so at https://www.redistricting.state.pa.us.

To see more scientific analysis of Pennsylvania’s current and potential maps, residents can visit https://www.davesredistricting.org and https://www.gerrymander.princeton.edu.

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