Redistricting will be the definitive political fight of 2021 in Pennsylvania

Marie Albiges of Spotlight PA
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg

HARRISBURG — With partisanship in the Pennsylvania legislature at peak levels, lawmakers this year are gearing up for the once-a-decade brawl to redraw political districts — and the stakes couldn’t be much higher.

The state is set to lose a congressional seat. The representation of millions of people is on the line. And after a bruising 2020 marred by politicized court battles and misinformation, Republicans will have to do what seems impossible — get along with Democrats.

Every decade, states undergo a process called redistricting, in which the boundaries of state legislative and U.S. House of Representative districts are redrawn to account for shifts in population as accounted for in the decennial census count.

In Pennsylvania, state lawmakers determine which voters are placed in which districts. They can manipulate the lines to all but guarantee legislative majorities — and their own job security — that enable political control over policy-making decisions for the next decade.

It’s what Republicans did in 2011, when they controlled all three branches of government. They used that power to approve maps that experts and courts said were heavily skewed to favor their own political interests, through a tactic called partisan gerrymandering.

While they still control the General Assembly, Republicans this year will have to work with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who can veto the congressional map. The GOP’s other adversary, the Democrat-dominated state Supreme Court, is also able to throw out legislative and congressional maps if it deems them unfair or illegal.

The pandemic, delays in completing the U.S. Census data that drives the redistricting process, and the probable loss of one congressional district due to Pennsylvania’s declining population are sure to further complicate the process.

At the same time, redistricting reformers are hoping lawmakers agree to hold themselves more accountable by adding more criteria and transparency to the map-drawing process. If history is any guide, however, the legislature will be loath to give up any of its power.

How redistricting works

There are different processes that govern the drawing of the state’s congressional boundaries and the state House and Senate districts. Still, both fundamentally put control in the hands of the most powerful lawmakers in Harrisburg.

Every decade since 1971, a reapportionment commission made up of the majority and minority leaders from the state House and Senate has been tasked with drawing legislative district maps. Those lawmakers are supposed to choose a fifth, non-legislative member to serve on the commission, but have rarely agreed on one, so the state Supreme Court justices pick for them.

This year, because the court has more Democrats than Republicans, Democrats may have a 3-2 majority on the reapportionment commission.

The commission’s maps are considered final unless a citizen or lawmaker makes an appeal to the state Supreme Court. Last decade, the court — then in Republican hands — threw out the first maps, saying the commissioners drew districts that cut through too many municipalities. The commission drew a new set of maps, which the justices approved in 2013.

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The congressional map is drawn by the legislature and only needs a simple majority to pass. While Republicans have a six-member advantage in the Senate and a 22-seat advantage in the House, the map will still need to go to Wolf, a Democrat, for approval.

“As long as he has a veto somewhere, he’s got leverage somewhere,” said Keith Gaddie, a University of Oklahoma political science professor whose research focuses on redistricting and voting rights reform.

Gaddie said Republicans might play it safe, designing a map that satisfies both parties to avoid a repeat of 2018, when the state Supreme Court ruled the congressional map was politically gerrymandered (under that map, Republicans had a 13-5 advantage in the state’s delegation).

That decision, coupled with election and pandemic rulings from 2020, have fueled GOP anger toward the court. As a result, they are seeking to exert more power over the judiciary.

A constitutional amendment proposed by Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, would require appellate court judges to run in regional judicial districts, rather than statewide contests. The districts would be solely drawn and governed by state lawmakers.

Diamond has argued the appellate courts, whose judges primarily live in Allegheny County or Philadelphia, should be more geographically diverse. Opponents counter that letting lawmakers draw judicial districts would result in a map skewed toward their own political ambitions.

A constitutional amendment needs to pass twice in consecutive General Assembly sessions before going to the voters. Diamond’s proposal already passed last session, and now needs approval in the state House and Senate before Feb. 18 to get onto the primary ballot in May.

If approved, it would go into effect immediately, and lawmakers could begin drawing the judicial districts based on 2020 census data.

Gov. Tom Wolf and newly elected Lt. Gov. running mate John Fetterman speak to the media at Manchester Cafe in Manchester Township, Wednesday, May 16, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Data delays may mean a later start

This year, with the U.S. Census Bureau behind schedule in releasing population data because of the pandemic and legal battles brought by President Donald Trump’s administration, the redistricting process is likely to take place later than usual.

Michael Li, senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice’s democracy program, said census block data that gets down to the street level won’t be available until at least later this spring.

A spokesperson for the House Democratic caucus estimated that delays receiving the census data would push back the map-drawing processes by at least two months, into late spring. Republican leadership did not respond to questions about the schedule for drawing legislative and congressional maps.

Even without census data available, estimates show that — like in 2011 — Pennsylvania will likely lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives because of declining populations, putting an end to the 9-9 partisan divide. Where the population has declined will have some influence over which district will disappear, and both parties will try to ensure that one of their members doesn’t have their district absorbed.

What reformers say needs to change

Advocates for redistricting reform such as Fair Districts PA are again pushing for lawmakers to follow better criteria and add more transparency to the process.

In 2011, the legislative commission held public meetings and made the census data they used to draw the maps available online, though those transparency measures aren’t required.

Republicans in the state legislature, meanwhile, unveiled the congressional map in public for the first time in December that year. Gov. Tom Corbett signed off on the plan less than 10 days later.

Introduced for the first time last year, the Legislative and Congressional Redistricting Act would prevent lawmakers from diluting the votes of people who are “racial and language minorities” and require them to keep communities of interest intact. Plans designed to protect incumbents or unfairly discriminate against political parties would also be prohibited.

The bill would also require the state to hold several public meetings on both the congressional and legislative maps. Any Pennsylvania resident would be able to submit their own map and would have online access to the same data lawmakers have.

It would also add qualifications for the fifth legislative commission member. Right now, anyone — including lobbyists and relatives of legislators — can be considered.

Rep. Wendi Thomas, R-Bucks, who plans to introduce the bill again this year, said today’s technology makes it simple to inject transparency into the process so citizens can be involved.

“I really haven’t had people say, ‘No I don’t think the bill is a good idea,’ " she said.

Thomas’ measure didn’t get a vote in the House State Government Committee last year, though she thinks competing priorities — including those related to the COVID-19 pandemic — contributed to that.

Also left unconsidered is a measure redistricting reformers have been pushing for several years: an independent, citizen-led commission that they say would lead to fairer maps.

It’s impossible for such a panel to be in place to oversee the drawing of the legislative maps in 2021, as that change would require a constitutional amendment — a lengthy process. The legislature could, however, put an independent commission in charge of drawing the congressional maps by simply passing a bill, something Wolf supports.

Redistricting commissions in nine states are free of politicians, while several more comprise a mix of legislators and citizens. Supporters say getting lawmakers out of the process is essential to stopping gerrymandering.

Thomas, who also supports an independent redistricting commission, said her bill to add transparency to the process needs to pass soon if it is to be in effect for the 2021 redistricting.

“It’s a good-government bill,” she said, adding it has bipartisan support. “My best shot is to continue to talk about the transparency piece of it.”

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