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Pennsylvania Republicans want a lot more power in redistricting for state maps

A new proposal could allow the GOP-controlled legislature to draw gerrymandered lines with little oversight. An expert calls it a "power grab."

The new proposed Pennsylvania State House map.
The new proposed Pennsylvania State House map.Read moreSam Morris

Republican lawmakers in the Pennsylvania state House, infuriated by the proposed new map for their districts, are fast-tracking legislation that could effectively give them complete control to draw new lines — and long before the next decennial redistricting.

The proposal could ultimately allow the legislature — which Republicans have fully controlled for all but four of the last 27 years — to draw gerrymandered lines with little oversight. While the proposed constitutional amendment would create a new redistricting commission that includes regular citizens to draw legislative maps, Republicans would currently have an advantage in picking its members. And lawmakers would have the power to approve or reject the maps drawn by that commission — and to draw their own.

“It’s a power grab disguised as reform,” said Michael Li, a redistricting expert at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “It kind of looks like a good commission, but then it’s not. … It ultimately gives power to the legislature.”

The proposal comes amid Republican attacks on the map proposed last month by the current redistricting commission. The bill’s sponsor said it was “a response to … how the entire process played out.” The proposal would require the maps to be redrawn immediately after it is approved — meaning the House map that has Republicans furious would be in place for only two years instead of 10.

The new House map favors Republicans, but significantly less so than the current one, according to a detailed data analysis conducted for The Inquirer by the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

» READ MORE: Is the new Pa. House map better for Democrats or Republicans? We tested it.

Redistricting reform advocates have long called for politicians to be removed from the process of drawing political maps every 10 years to account for population changes. The amendment to the state constitution would simultaneously scale back lawmakers’ official involvement in drawing the initial maps, while giving them greater power over the final ones that are actually implemented. It would also limit the role of state courts: If the state Supreme Court throws out a map, the proposal designates the legislature as the body to draw its replacement.

State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York) introduced the proposal last week and plans to move it out of the House State Government Committee he chairs on Monday. He said it has the backing of GOP leadership and would “move pretty swift[ly] through the House,” heading to the Senate as early as Wednesday.

In an interview, Grove emphasized the creation of the citizens’ commission, saying it would create a fairer redistricting process that gives the public more power.

“We’ll put citizens out there, we’ll see what citizens can do with the map, and then we’ll have the final check to make sure there’s no skulduggery at the end of the day,” he said.

Pennsylvania’s state House and Senate maps are currently drawn by a five-member commission made up of the Republican and Democratic leaders of the two chambers and a chair who is usually appointed by the state Supreme Court. If the commission fails to agree on maps, the constitution gives the Supreme Court the responsibility of drawing them.

» READ MORE: 5 takeaways from Pennsylvania’s new state House and Senate maps

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) said he and his members are interested in finding a process “a little more smoother than what we’ve had currently.” He cited concerns and frustration with the role of courts in redistricting.

“Are the people getting their voice heard, or are the courts?” Benninghoff said.

Under Grove’s proposal, maps would first be drawn by an 11-member Citizens’ Legislative Reapportionment Commission. The legislative leaders would each appoint two members. Two additional members from different parties would be appointed by a majority vote of county governments from the state’s 67 counties. That would give Republicans an edge because they control most of the counties, so they could pick a registered Democrat who is more favorable to them than other applicants. (Republicans control a far greater number of less populous counties, while Democrats control a smaller number of the most populous counties.)

The final member would be appointed by the Commonwealth Court, which currently has a Republican majority — unlike the Democratic majority on the Supreme Court.

But it’s the next step that goes most firmly against the kind of best practices and principles that advocates and experts call for.

The commission would send its preliminary House and Senate maps to the respective chambers for approval. If the House or Senate rejects their maps twice, lawmakers can start from scratch and draw their own, passing it on a simple majority vote. The proposal would also give the legislature the power to draw maps if the commission fails to reach a consensus.

“This is absolutely a regression from what we already have,” said Khalif Ali, the head of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a nonpartisan good-government group. “When I was reading through it, I was just amazed.”

» READ MORE: Mark Nordenberg on drawing Pennsylvania’s new legislative maps, GOP attacks, and what comes next

Grove said lawmakers would avoid drawing the maps themselves — despite the obvious political incentive to do so. While there wouldn’t be any protections against it, he said political norms would prevent overturning the commission’s maps.

“Politically, it’s very hard to not engage with a citizens’ map,” he said. “Maybe a General Assembly would just scrap it, but to me, it’s very, very difficult for that to occur.”

Pressed on why it would be so challenging and what would stop the lawmakers from drawing districts for their own political benefit, Grove said: “The fact that you have a citizens’ map coming out.”

Democrats disagree.

Nicole Reigelman, spokesperson for House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia), said that under the proposal, “the legislature’s majority party would wield control and have the ability to redraw their own legislative map, further entrenching the gerrymandering that has defined our commonwealth’s elections for decades.”

Grove said the proposal is modeled on House Republicans’ work on a congressional map, which is passed as regular legislation and not through a commission. Grove chose a map drawn by a well-known redistricting activist — Republicans later made some changes to it — that he said proved how a public mapmaking process could work. That process has so far proven unsuccessful, with Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, opposing the map and time running out to put a new one in place.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania Republicans are going on the attack against a new map for state House districts

The timing of the proposal is also suspect, Ali said. Redistricting reform efforts in recent years, including the creation of independent commissions, have failed repeatedly despite unprecedented mobilization around a topic once seen as wonky. Grove’s bill is a constitutional amendment, meaning it would need to be passed by the legislature in two consecutive sessions before being put on the ballot for voters’ approval — with the governor playing no role and unable to veto it.

At its earliest, the amendment could pass the legislature this year and in the first months of 2023, placing it on next year’s primary election ballot. If successful, as nearly all constitutional amendment ballot questions have been in the past, the maps would be redrawn for the 2024 election.

“I would have a little more understanding of the bill if we were talking about the [2031] redistricting cycle, but this is clearly trying to disrupt what we have in place now,” Ali said. “That’s a very, very troubling part.”