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Pennsylvania congressional redistricting fight heats up as Gov. Wolf pushes back on House GOP proposal

A veto would mean Pennsylvania’s maps for next year’s midterm elections, in which Republicans are hoping to win back control of Congress, could be decided by state courts.

Gov. Tom Wolf has come out against a congressional redistricting map proposed by Republicans in the Pennsylvania House.
Gov. Tom Wolf has come out against a congressional redistricting map proposed by Republicans in the Pennsylvania House.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday criticized a map for new congressional districts proposed by Pennsylvania House Republicans, accusing them of partisan gerrymandering to skew the map to favor the GOP.

“The [Pennsylvania] Constitution invites us to do what we can to make sure the election process is a fair one,” Wolf wrote to the top two House Republican leaders, Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) and Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre). “It is not an invitation to make cynical deals aimed at diminishing the importance of the vote. It is a recurring test of our commitment to the core principles of a healthy democracy. It is a test that [the GOP proposal] fails.”

Wolf’s comments set up a high-stakes showdown over the maps, which are based on population data from the 2020 federal census and will be used for the next decade. A spokesperson said Wolf opposes the bill in its current form and encouraged Republicans to work with Democrats to revise the map.

Wolf has refused to directly negotiate with lawmakers, saying it’s not his job to do so. He instead created a Redistricting Advisory Council, which laid out principles he says he will use in approving or vetoing any map he is sent.

In a letter, Wolf said the proposed congressional map violates several of those principles, including that the district populations vary too significantly without clear reason; that districts split communities, seemingly only to give Republicans an unfair edge; that the mapmaking process has been opaque with the public left in the dark about its choices; and that the map gives “a structural advantage to Republican candidates that far exceeds the party’s voter support.”

An analysis of the map, he says, found it “would consistently deliver a disproportionate number of seats to Republican candidates when compared with Pennsylvania voters’ preferences. This appears to be the result of intentional line-drawing choices that favor Republican candidates.”

His veto would mean Pennsylvania’s map for next year’s midterm elections, in which Republicans are hoping to win back control of Congress, could be decided by state courts. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which drew the current map in 2018, has a Democratic majority.

Wolf also took issue with the House committee’s process for negotiating and advancing the maps, saying he has been “asked to negotiate a map with Republicans behind the scenes” and would prefer that the issue be hashed out in public.

State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), who chairs the State Government Committee, on Tuesday issued a short and pointed response to Wolf’s letter, saying he has “taken the liberty” of reserving a room in the Capitol for he and Wolf to hold a public meeting on Jan. 6.

“If it is your intent to not negotiate congressional maps ‘behind closed doors’, let us meet in public,” Grove wrote.

Wolf swiftly declined.

“The governor has already publicly provided his comments … so he has no plans to accept this invitation,” Wolf spokesperson Elizabeth Rementer said.

States must redraw their congressional maps every 10 years to reflect population changes. Those maps help determine the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives and the influence of local communities at the federal level. And because Pennsylvania is losing one of its 18 seats, one party will always have an edge going forward.

The committee’s map favors Republicans, with more districts likely to produce GOP representatives than Democratic ones. Republicans could gain one, if not more, congressional seats if the map becomes law.

The map is enacted as legislation, meaning it must be passed by both chambers of the Republican-controlled legislature before being approved by Wolf.

In the Senate, the Republican and Democratic chairs of the Senate State Government Committee have been negotiating for months on a separate map that they planned to introduce last week. Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill), the chair of the committee, said Tuesday that map was “still pending” with no specific timeline. “The governor’s latest partisan rhetoric doesn’t help move the process,” he said.

Pennsylvania has a history of partisan gerrymandering, or drawing district boundaries for partisan advantage. In 2011, a Republican-drawn congressional map consistently elected 13 Republicans and five Democrats from the same districts, even as the state voted for Barack Obama and then Donald Trump for president and Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey for U.S. Senate.

In 2018, the state Supreme Court threw out the map, declaring it an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander and imposing its own map, under which Democrats and Republicans have won nine seats each.

Time is running out to have a map finalized for the May 17 primary elections, and a breakdown of the proper legislative process for enacting a congressional map would again send the issue to court.

The Pennsylvania Department of State has said maps must be in place by Jan. 24 for the state and counties to meet their election deadlines, including the Feb. 15 start of the nomination petition period for Democratic and Republican candidates to gather signatures to get on the primary ballot.

Wolf said he has “significant concern about the timeline,” noting that the legislature currently has only four voting days scheduled in January, including one on Jan. 24.

“This is an extraordinarily compressed schedule for passage of a congressional map, presentment for my review, and resolution of any legal challenges which may be brought, and further increases my concerns about the transparency with which this process is being conducted,” he wrote in the letter. “It is not clear why the General Assembly did not move the process along more quickly despite an abundance of time to do so.”

The legislature can reschedule the primary or change election deadlines — it worked with Wolf to do so last year at the start of the pandemic, rescheduling the April 28, 2020, election for June 2 instead — and some lawmakers, including Sen. Jake Corman (R., Centre), the top Republican in the chamber, have previously expressed willingness to do so.

But Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) told the Associated Press that she would consider moving the primary “only as a last resort.”

In a tweet last week, Grove said: “We aren’t moving the primary.”

A group of plaintiffs, represented by national Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias, sued the state earlier this month, saying it was clear the legislative process would fail and asking the Commonwealth Court to step in and draw a congressional map instead. (The court had dismissed an earlier lawsuit from the same plaintiffs, saying it was too early for such a challenge, but deadlines are much closer now.)

In an order last week, the court gave the legislature and Wolf until Jan. 30 to enact a congressional map. If the legislature doesn’t pass one, or Wolf doesn’t approve it, the court said it would instead select a plan from those submitted by the parties in the lawsuit.

The court order also said it would consider changing the 2022 election schedule if a map is not enacted by Jan. 30.

In the meantime, the plaintiffs have also asked the state Supreme Court to take up the issue itself and draw a map again, skipping the Commonwealth Court process altogether.