Courts weigh PA’s new maps

Legislative maps face legal challenge

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 2/22/22

HARRISBURG, PA — Partisan disagreements and deadlock have shaped Pennsylvania’s ongoing redistricting process, necessitating final rulings from the state’s highest court.

Despite …

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Courts weigh PA’s new maps

Legislative maps face legal challenge

Posted

HARRISBURG, PA — Partisan disagreements and deadlock have shaped Pennsylvania’s ongoing redistricting process, necessitating final rulings from the state’s highest court.

Despite the squabbling between Republican lawmakers and the Democratic governor, anti-gerrymandering advocates and citizen map-creators say they have reason to feel optimistic, citing more room for public input and transparency this time around than in the previous decade.

Pennsylvania redraws its district lines every 10 years to account for population changes. The new maps affect representation in the U.S. House and the two chambers of the state legislature in Harrisburg.

There’s a great deal at stake for the two main political parties, which stand to gain or lose advantages in future elections based on how the maps are drawn. Unfairly drawn maps are called “gerrymandered.” For years, concerned PA residents have rallied to shift map-drawing powers out of the hands of elected officials and into those of commonwealth residents.

“If you compare to how it played out in 2011 and 2012, this process has been far better,” Justin Villere, managing director of the Draw the Lines initiative—a project that encourages residents to get involved in redistricting—told River Reporter. “We’ve seen more public engagement on both the legislative and congressional process, whether that’s in the form of hearings or the responsiveness of the mappers to what the public has asked for.”

Congressional map

In the previous decade—with Republicans controlling both the legislative and executive branches of state government—PA churned out some infamously GOP-biased maps. They were so heavily gerrymandered, in fact, that the PA Supreme Court deemed the commonwealth’s congressional map unconstitutional in 2018 and prescribed new, more representative districts.

Republicans still enjoy a majority. both the state House and Senate, but this year Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf stood in the way of the congressional map that they hoped to pass.

House Republicans pushed a map initially drawn by former Republican Lehigh County commissioner and redistricting advocate Amanda Holt. Party leaders heralded the map as “citizen-drawn” and say it was picked as a result of “the most transparent, citizen-driven congressional redistricting process in the history of our commonwealth.”

Wolf was less impressed, however, and vetoed the map when it arrived on his desk. He criticized it as “highly skewed.”

With the legislators and the governor unable to come to a compromise on a suitable map, the task was turned over to the court system.

“We would like to have seen the General Assembly and the governor come to an agreement before the map got in the court system,” Villere said. “So that’s disappointing.”

With a host of potential maps to choose from, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania first heard testimony from a range of mapmakers and stakeholders. Appellate judge Patricia McCullough was preparing to choose a map before the PA Supreme Court announced that it would make the final determination.

Rather than making an official ruling, McCullough was instead asked to simply recommend a map to the state’s high court: She backed the one passed by the legislature and vetoed by Wolf.

The state’s Supreme Court justices, who lean more to the left than the Commonwealth Court, must now decide whether they will accept McCullough’s suggestion, choose another map, or draw their own. They heard testimony on Friday of last week, hearing arguments from the Democratic and Republican parties, the governor’s office, citizen coalitions and good-government groups.

One of the maps up for consideration is the “Pennsylvania Citizens’ Map” put forth by Draw the Lines. Villere said he’s hopeful the high court will see it as a nonpartisan choice.

“We feel like it achieves the constitutional metrics, but then also doesn’t favor either party like some of the other partisan-produced maps do,” he said.

Draw the Lines held map-drawing competitions over the previous three years and received more than 7,200 citizen-drawn submissions; 1,500 of those submissions were finalized and used to create the final product.

“Before our mappers drew their maps, we had asked them to do an exercise where they ranked the values that mattered most to them,” Villere said. “That revealed to us that… mappers wanted to create districts that were compact, they wanted to create districts that were competitive as much as possible, and they wanted to create districts where partisan advantage was limited.”

In addition to his own office’s map proposal, Wolf highlighted the Citizens’ Map as being “free of gerrymandering and in full accord with the Voting Rights Act.”

At press time, it’s unclear when the court will choose, or unveil, the final map that is sure to impact Harrisburg’s balance of power for the following 10 years. Stay updated at www.riverreporter.com for its ultimate decision.

Legislative maps

The maps for Pennsylvania’s state House and Senate have taken a different route than the congressional. A five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission—made up of four party leaders and led by nonelected chairperson Mark Nordenberg—is tasked with drawing and approving the new district lines for state representatives.

The Senate map passed without much controversy. The House map, though, incited the ire of some Republican lawmakers, most vocally House Majority leader Kerry Benninghoff who decried the map as a “Democratic gerrymander” and cast the only no vote of the five committee members. He also has criticized the map for creating several county splits.

“This map’s competitiveness is so bad that it will only lead to increased polarization, less bipartisanship and more gridlock,” Benninghoff said after the map was passed.

In response to its critics, Nordenberg has repeatedly defended the House map, arguing that the changes made were necessary to undo years of Republican gerrymandering, and that the various county splits were necessary in order to preserve communities of interest—in Nordeneberg’s words: “positioning voters in racial and ethnic minority groups to influence the election of candidates of their choice.”

Benninghoff continues to call foul, however. Last week, he filed a legal challenge with the state Supreme Court, asking it to throw out the maps passed by the reapportionment commission and redraw them “without race as a dominant factor.”

Among a list of complaints, Benninghoff is also asking the court to reverse the commission’s decision to count incarcerated residents by their home address, not by the prison they are being held in—a measure which is expected to increase urban representation and decrease rural representation.

Many Pennsylvanians are awaiting the court’s decisions on both the congressional and legislative maps with bated breath—not least of whom are the state’s election officials, who are wondering how these decisions will affect the 2022 primary election, now mere months away.

Click here for more articles covering Pennsylvania's redistricting progress.

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