With deadlines looming and many seats up for grabs, the fate of Pennsylvania’s redrawn legislative and congressional districts likely rests in the courts.
Pennsylvania lawmakers have one big job every 10 years: set boundaries for new legislative and congressional districts that reflect changes in the state’s population over the last decade based on data from the recent Census.
This process is vital to ensure Pennsylvania’s residents have fair and just representation both in Harrisburg and Washington. But it’s a process fraught with problems. Most notably, legislators trying to reset boundaries in the best interests of their party, not their constituents.
“Both sides use this process for their own political advantage,” said Terry Madonna, a senior fellow for political affairs at Millersville University. “It’s not like one side is above doing that. Both parties will do it if they have an opportunity. Look at the current situation. The congressional map, which is done by the Republican-controlled Legislature, the Democrats are upset about it. The reverse is true when you get to the redistricting of the state House and the state Senate. The commission in charge of that has a Democratic majority.”
We’ve seen the courts step in before to stop blatantly egregious redistricting. Following the 2010 Census, Republicans stacked the congressional map 13-5 in their favor through partisan gerrymandering. That congressional map was eventually redrawn by the state Supreme Court in 2018, who split the districts evenly 9-9.
It’s looking like the courts will step in again to help determine what the voting districts will look like for the more than 200 state House seats, 24 state Senate seats, and 17 US House seats up for election this year in Pennsylvania.
With just days until the Jan. 24 deadline for the redrawn legislative maps to be submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of State, and for new congressional district proposals to reach Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court, the back and forth continues on how those new boundaries will take shape. The 11th hour impasse makes it almost inevitable that a ruling on the legislative and congressional maps could involve both the Republican-leaning Commonwealth Court and the Democrat-controlled state Supreme Court, according to Fred Foley, a professor of political science at La Salle University in Philadelphia.
“It’s really likely the legislative maps will end up with the Commonwealth Court and potentially, both maps end up in the Supreme Court,” Foley said. “Anything that gets decided by the Commonwealth Court can be appealed to the Supreme Court. But it will get done, I don’t think there’s any question about that. The question is how long is it going to take.”
This is all playing out as the March 8 deadline for prospective Senate, House, and congressional candidates to gather signatures to get on the primary ballot is fast approaching, with the primary itself not far behind (May 17).
With so many seats up for grabs, so much at stake politically, and the clock ticking, let’s take a look at where things currently stand with the redrawing of Pennsylvania’s legislative and congressional maps.
What’s at Stake
Republicans have had control of the state Legislature for all but four of the last 27 years. They currently hold a 113-90 House majority and a 29-21 Senate majority. The GOP’s control comes despite the fact that the state has roughly 500,000 more registered Democrats on its voter rolls than Republicans, a sign that Republican gerrymandering after the 2010 Census paid off.
Democratic control of the state Legislature could lead to the advancement of a number of initiatives that have gone nowhere under Republican leadership, such as the legalization of recreational marijuana for adults and an increase of the $7.25 hour minimum wage. Democrats are also trying to protect reproductive rights and the rights of LGBTQ Pennsylvanians.
The state constitution calls for the legislative districts in the state House and Senate to be redrawn after each census. The districts must have nearly equal populations and must not discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity. State legislative districts must share a common border and should not split counties, cities, incorporated towns, boroughs, townships, and wards whenever possible.
The five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission develops the House and Senate maps. The commission currently consists of the Democratic and Republican caucus leaders of the House and Senate — Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (Centre) and Sen. Kim Ward (Westmoreland) on the GOP side, and Rep. Joanna McClinton (Philadelphia) and Sen. Jay Costa (Allegheny) representing Democrats — along with state Supreme Court-appointed chairperson Mark Nordenberg, a registered Democrat and a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh who previously served on the transition team of then-Gov.-elect Tom Wolf in 2014.
Once the commission agrees on preliminary plans for each map, it must hold a 30-day public comment and objection period before the maps are finalized, after which they can still be challenged in the state courts.
Where Things Stand
Last month, the commission voted in favor of preliminary plans for both the 50 senatorial and 203 representative districts. The vote was 5-0 on the Senate plan, and 3-2 for the House plan, with both Republicans opposed. The commission held a public hearing to gather feedback on the proposed maps last Saturday.
The Republican opposition on the House map stems from significant changes from its current iteration, due to a large increase in Pennsylvania’s racial minority population over the last 10 years, along with a population decrease in the more conservative parts of the state.
Nordenberg told the Associated Press that seven new districts would be created in the House under the new plan (along with one in the Senate) that don’t have any incumbent and feature heavy concentrations of racial minorities. He said that should create the opportunity for racial minorities to get elected.
“There is no incumbent advantage that will have to be overcome in any of these districts, which should give minority communities residing in them a special opportunity,” he said.
While the public comment and objection period is underway and a court challenge is likely, Republicans are mounting a potential pre-emptive strike against the erosion of GOP-leaning districts in the future. Earlier in January, the House State Government Committee passed, on party lines, a plan to replace the Legislative Reapportionment Commission with an 11-member panel of people appointed by the state Legislature. Given the current composition of the state Legislature, the committee likely would end up leaning Republican.
What’s at Stake
With Democrats holding a relatively slim margin in the US House of Representatives (225-214), and with Pennsylvania losing a House seat, any redistricting that favors Republicans could be detrimental to federal legislation that would strengthen voting rights and reproductive rights, and address climate change.
Committees in both the Senate and the House redraw Pennsylvania’s congressional map after every US Census via a bill that must pass through both chambers before being signed into law by the governor. If the governor vetoes the map, it falls to the state courts to make a decision. Outside parties such as activists and citizens commissions can also submit maps for the legislature and courts to consider.
The populations of congressional districts must be equal as much as possible according to federal and Pennsylvania laws, in order to ensure new district boundaries are fair.
Congressional redistricting involves reapportionment, which is the process of adjusting how many of the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives each state gets based on population changes since the last census. Even though Pennsylvania’s population grew by 2.1% over the last decade, the state still lost a seat in the US House of Representatives since the pace of that population growth lagged relative to the country. Pennsylvania has had 18 representatives in the US House for the last decade, down from 19 in the previous decade. With reapportionment, the commonwealth will have 17 representatives in the US House.
Prior to the current redistricting cycle, Wolf convened a Redistricting Advisory Council of six people with expertise in redistricting, political science, and mapmaking. The goal was to establish principles that would guide Wolf’s approval or veto of the redrawn map.
Where Things Stand
A proposed redrawn Congressional map passed the state House last week and the Senate on Tuesday.
State Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) sponsored the proposal and according to the Associated Press called it “a historic departure from the way this body has operated in the past” because it was based on a submission from a volunteer map drawer outside state government.
He said the map would likely result in eight Democratic districts, eight Republican districts, and one toss-up, and praised his proposal as the result of public hearings around the state.
“Not everybody is happy with every single map,” Grove said during floor debate. “We’re a big state, we have a lot of communities of interest.”
The new map now goes to Wolf for approval, which seems unlikely. When the map was initially proposed last month, Wolf expressed his dissatisfaction in a letter to Grove and other House leaders, accusing Republicans of partisan gerrymandering.
“The people of Pennsylvania are looking for a fair election map drawn in an open and honest way,” Wolf wrote. “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. They deserve better and so does our democracy.”
The governor said he will not get involved in negotiating with Republicans on revising a map he feels does not comply with the principles established by the Redistricting Advisory Council. In particular, he cited a splitting of communities in Luzerne, Dauphin, Philadelphia, and Chester counties as a strategic move to make districts more favorable to Republican candidates. He has urged Republicans to work with Democrats to revise the map.
Wolf has since shared two redistricting map proposals — one drawn by him, the other based on submissions from more than 1,500 Pennsylvania citizens — as examples of new congressional district boundaries he said are consistent with the principles of the Redistricting Advisory Council, free of gerrymandering, and in full accord with the Voting Rights Act and federal and state laws.
Bracing for the possibility of a veto from Wolf, the Commonwealth Court said last week it will render its judgment on proposed maps by Jan. 30. Any opinion by the Commonwealth Court is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court, raising the prospect that the petition window for congressional candidates will be delayed.
State courts were involved in selecting or drawing Pennsylvania’s congressional map in 1992 and 2018.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.