Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Pennsylvania’s new House map can fix decades of gerrymandering | Opinion

While the state's population has changed, our elected representation has not.

From left: House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, Chairman Mark Nordenberg, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff participate in a meeting of the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission in Harrisburg on Dec. 16, 2021.
From left: House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, Chairman Mark Nordenberg, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff participate in a meeting of the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission in Harrisburg on Dec. 16, 2021.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

Pennsylvania is changing. The 2020 Census shows that our state is becoming more diverse, and people of color and immigrants have driven population growth. But while Pennsylvania’s population has changed, our elected representation has not. Tuesday is the last day to submit comment to the Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC) on new maps that will set legislative district lines for the next decade. These changes could determine who controls the legislature and what becomes law.

The lines before were so egregious that many communities felt they were without representation in Harrisburg. In 2020, 90% of Pennsylvania’s legislature was white and 73% of legislators were male. This does not reflect the state’s population, where around 25% are people of color and women are in the majority. Compared with other large metropolitan states like New York, Texas, Florida, and California, Pennsylvania’s legislature is among the least diverse. This is a problem.

Right now, entrenched state legislators have come to resemble less and less the electorate they are supposed to represent. Our unrepresentative legislature keeps our politics locked in partisan squabbling, instead of tackling major problems like poverty, hunger, housing, and injustice while ignoring opportunities for growth and success that come by looking to the future.

» READ MORE: After the Fairmount fire, 5 ways to rethink Philly’s housing priorities | Opinion

In highly polarized districts, legislators are more likely to speak to their party’s base rather than the whole of their constituency. In districts that accurately represent the population, though, the political conversation is drawn to a place where legislators have to represent a wider group of people and perspectives.

Pennsylvania has long been defined by immigration. As the state grew into an industrial power known for coal and steel, immigrants, primarily from Europe, settled in coal towns and near manufacturing and industrial centers.

Today, Pennsylvania’s population growth is driven by immigrants of color. The most recent census data show growth in Spanish-speaking and Asian American populations in the areas around Harrisburg, Lehigh Valley, Reading, Lancaster, Philadelphia and its suburbs, and small towns across the state.

While our state’s immigration patterns have changed, our legislative maps are locked into patterns created decades ago through gerrymandering, where politicians use their power to manipulate district lines to their advantage. Republicans controlled this process for decades, but incumbents in both parties benefited.

Now, by enacting the proposed House map, Pennsylvania can begin to move toward better representation in the state legislature. We should applaud Chairman Mark Nordenberg for the action that he took in December to propose fairer maps that better reflect and keep pace with Pennsylvania’s changing population.

In Pennsylvania and in much of the industrial Midwest, there is a tendency to yearn for years past. But if we want to recapture our place as a global economic driver, we need legislators that better understand and reflect the regions that are driving growth in our commonwealth. This starts with ending decades of gerrymandering. Current district lines divide up and diminish communities of color, especially in the Lehigh Valley.

If communities of color were adequately represented in the state House, there would be dozens of districts where minority voters make up a voting majority. The 2010 map falls well short of reflecting the state’s growing diversity. The proposed map makes real progress toward fair representation with five more majority-minority districts (31 total, up from 26) and dozens of minority-influence districts.

As Nordenberg outlined last month, the House map creates districts in the Lehigh Valley with House District 134 and House District 22 representing prime opportunities for people of color to win seats. In Reading, the House map maintains majority Latino seats in House District 127 and House District 126 while creating an additional Latino opportunity district in House District 129.

In Lancaster, there is a new seat as well as new opportunities for minority representation. We see the same in Philadelphia and its suburbs. We need to make sure all of these opportunities exist in the final map to respond to the growing population in Pennsylvania and ensure representation for every community.

The LRC’s House map also creates six Asian American and Pacific Islander influence districts where the AAPI population is greater than 15%.

These districts represent an opportunity for millions of Pennsylvania residents to have better representation in their legislature. Without voices in the General Assembly, growing communities in Allentown, Reading, Lancaster, and Hazleton get ignored and the potential for those people to contribute to the vibrancy of the commonwealth is squandered.

By passing the proposed House map, we can enfranchise growing, diverse communities. We can empower them to drive Pennsylvania into the 21st century, reestablishing our commonwealth as a leader on the global stage.

Providing representation gives these people and their communities an effective voice in government, and it will lead to a legislature more responsive to the needs, from health to safety to livelihoods, not only for these communities but for the commonwealth as a whole.

Neil Makhija is a Philadelphia-based attorney who currently serves as executive director of IMPACT, the nation’s leading South Asian civic organization, and as a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.