Pennsylvania is running out of time.
Less than four months before the May 17 primary election, each day without final maps for congressional and state legislative districts heightens uncertainty for candidates who are supposed to file paperwork soon, elections officials trying to prepare mail ballots, and voters who don’t know which candidates will run to represent them.
And the maps still may not be finalized for weeks, raising the prospect that the election itself could be delayed.
A state court has already set — and then accelerated — deadlines for a congressional map: Parties in a lawsuit were set to submit map proposals Monday to the Commonwealth Court, and if the legislative process hasn’t produced a final map by Sunday, the court will pick or draw one. It will also consider changing election deadlines, as it has before when redistricting runs into a primary.
Pennsylvania is already set to blow past an unofficial deadline: The Department of State, which oversees elections, has said for months that Monday was a practical deadline for having maps in place. More formal deadlines come quickly after that, including for candidates to collect and submit signatures to get on the ballot.
Here’s what’s going on with the redistricting timeline — and why it threatens the primary election calendar.
The normal congressional redistricting process has broken down
The decennial congressional redistricting is supposed to occur through the normal legislative process, with the Republican-controlled legislature passing a map and sending it to Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat. That process has stalled:
Republicans in the state House introduced their own map without Democratic input, then amended it — without public scrutiny — and passed it, sending it to the Senate with every House Democrat opposed.
Republicans in the state Senate passed that map Monday while acknowledging they expect Wolf to veto it.
Many observers have long suspected that Wolf and lawmakers would be unable to reach an agreement. A court-imposed map is becoming increasingly likely.
“We can’t agree. The governor is going to veto anything that is not what he produced,” Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) said Monday. “And the courts will wind up drawing maps.”
Only days remain before Commonwealth Court takes over congressional redistricting
In a pair of lawsuits that have since been consolidated, Commonwealth Court has said it will impose a congressional map if the regular process fails.
The groups involved in the case — including Republican legislative leaders, Wolf, a group of Senate Democrats, and the House Democratic leader — were set to submit proposed maps to the court Monday. The court will hold hearings this week on the maps and the possibility of changing the election calendar.
And if there’s no approved map by Sunday, the court will pick one.
If the court imposes a map, it’s already signaled a willingness to adjust the primary calendar.
Legislative maps are nearing completion, but Republicans are furious and appeals are highly likely
Maps for state House and Senate districts are also redrawn every 10 years. But instead of going through the legislative process, they’re drawn by a five-member commission, comprised of the Republican and Democratic leaders of both chambers and a chair appointed by the state Supreme Court.
That process was delayed by the late release of 2020 Census data. Preliminary new maps were released last month, when the commission voted unanimously to approve the Senate one and Democrats joined the chair in approving the House map.
Republican leaders voted against the House map, which erodes much of the advantage they currently enjoy under the current map. They’ve gone on the attack since, accusing the chair of inappropriately trying to gerrymander the lines for Democrats and proposing an overhaul of the redistricting process.
After the maps’ release, commission members and the public could propose changes or submit comments — and the commission received almost 6,000 submissions. After the commission reviews them, they’ll vote to finalize the maps. That vote is expected as early as this week.
That last vote kicks off a 30-day period when people can appeal directly to the state Supreme Court. Those appeals will take time to adjudicate, and it could be weeks before the maps are truly final.
That’s why a group of voters filed a new lawsuit last week asking the Commonwealth Court to adjust the primary election calendar while the legislative maps are finalized.
“It would be a travesty for some voters to have more power and some voters to have less because we’re stuck running on an outdated map,” said Adam Bonin, a Democratic election lawyer from Philadelphia representing the voters.
Pennsylvania could blow through multiple deadlines
The last months before Election Day are a hurricane of activity for elections officials and campaigns, and there are a series of both practical and legal deadlines to meet — or to potentially blow through.
Monday was one such practical deadline: To give counties enough time to properly prepare for candidates to file paperwork, the Department of State has long said maps should be finalized by now.
There are also legal deadlines, like the Feb. 15 start of the period for candidates to file paperwork. It’s likely that the congressional and state legislative maps aren’t finalized by then, meaning some candidates won’t know which districts to run in, or whether they’ll spend resources running in one district only to be drawn out of it.
And the maps may not be finalized until shortly before the March 8 deadline for filing nomination paperwork — or even afterward.
Pennsylvania’s top elections official warned after the initial legislative maps were approved that multiple deadlines won’t be met, creating “very serious risks to administration of the upcoming election cycle.”
With deadlines at risk, Republican leaders don’t want to move them
The primary election calendar is set by law, meaning it can be changed if the legislature works with Wolf to move deadlines or even the election date itself. They did that two years ago, when the disruption of the early days of the pandemic led them to move the 2020 primary from April to June.
Not this time.
While some Republican legislative leaders expressed a willingness to move the election date months ago, they now appear much more opposed to it. State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre), the House Republican leader, said he’s “not willing to entertain” changing the date.
“This is kind of a manufactured crisis,” Benninghoff said, blaming the delay for state legislative maps on Democrats and the commission chair.
" I don’t see the need to be moving a primary,” he said this month, “and I don’t plan on doing it.”
That makes court action the most likely way the election calendar would change.
It’s not just delays, it’s uncertainty
County elections officials also need the maps to be in place so they can make preparations like assigning voters to the right districts.
That means it’s not just the delays that are a problem — it’s the uncertainty. Without knowing the maps are truly final, any work that’s done based on a preliminary map may have to be redone later.
More litigation could also come, and any decisions made by the Commonwealth Court can be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
“We need to stop the legal dinner theater and get this case into the Supreme Court ASAP if there is to be any hope of a primary on May 17,” said Forrest Lehman, the elections director in northern Pennsylvania’s Lycoming County.
The uncertainty affects candidates and campaigns, too.
Political operatives in both parties said the delays could especially hinder challengers who don’t know how competitive (or not) each district will be, what the boundaries are, and even if they live in the district where they want to run.
For example, the competitiveness of a district helps determine how much money donors are willing to invest in a race. Vince Galko, a Republican consultant, pointed to several congressional seats in the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia suburbs that could grow more safely Democratic — or more competitive — depending on how the lines are drawn.
“A line here or there could really change them,” Galko said.
All of it leaves candidates in limbo.
“You don’t want to do a tour of the district and then the district changes,” said Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh-area Democratic consultant who said he has one client who delayed a full campaign kickoff while waiting to see the final district lines. “It’s causing heartburn.”
Staff writer Jonathan Tamari and Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA contributed to this article.