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Redistricting reform in Pa. is dead for now, advocates say. So what’s next?

Anti-gerrymandering advocates are relying on promises from those in charge of drawing the state’s political maps to hold hearings and allow citizen input.

Reform groups including Fair Districts PA wanted an independent commission void of elected officials who could unfairly influence the process of drawing the state’s political maps.
Reform groups including Fair Districts PA wanted an independent commission void of elected officials who could unfairly influence the process of drawing the state’s political maps.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

This article is part of a yearlong reporting project focused on redistricting and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It is made possible by the support of Spotlight PA members and Votebeat, a project focused on election integrity and voting access.

HARRISBURG — Supporters of redistricting reform in Pennsylvania are having a moment of disappointing déjà vu.

In 2020, after advocates held rallies and won the public, bipartisan support of some lawmakers, the Republican-controlled legislature effectively killed their proposal to create an independent commission void of elected officials who could unfairly influence the process of drawing the state’s political maps.

But they had a Plan B: the Legislative Congressional and Redistricting Act, which would put stricter guardrails on how lawmakers draw congressional and legislative districts and add transparency requirements to bring the process out from behind closed doors.

This year, anti-gerrymandering groups including Fair Districts PA once again set out to garner support in Harrisburg. They demanded meetings with state legislators, persuaded local county commissioners to sign resolutions supporting the measure, and filled local newspapers’ editorial pages with letters explaining why reform was a good idea.

But last week, the General Assembly recessed for the summer without adopting Plan B.

Lawmakers are set to return to Harrisburg in September, when the U.S. Census Bureau will finally deliver the population data needed to determine how the political districts are drawn.

As they begin the process of drawing districts that will influence policy in Pennsylvania for the next 10 years, they’ll do so without codified rules advocates say will help deter gerrymandering, when a map’s district boundaries are manipulated to benefit one political party over another.

Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA, said Monday it feels like the last time when the independent commission stalled, “except now we really are at a dead end.”

“They have effectively made very, very clear that there will be no redistricting reform,” she said. “I would say that if they didn’t do it by now, they’re not going to do it.”

Without guarantees in state law, reform advocates are relying on the verbal promises from those in charge of the process, who say they’re going to hold public hearings, allow citizens to submit their own maps, and explain how and why the districts were drawn — all requirements that were included in the legislation.

Pennsylvania’s congressional districts, which are shrinking from 18 to 17 due to slow population growth, will be drawn by the GOP-controlled legislature and must be approved by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

The state House and Senate maps are drawn by a Legislative Reapportionment Commission made up of party leaders in Harrisburg and an appointed chairperson. The chair for this redistricting cycle, Mark Nordenberg, said last week he wanted citizens to be able to submit suggestions through the redistricting website.

He also said public hearings would be conducted in July and August before census data are available, and the commission would “almost certainly” hold hearings again “after census data has been received and digested.”

Good-government groups like the Committee of Seventy and Common Cause PA hailed the state Supreme Court’s pick of Nordenberg — a former University of Pittsburgh chancellor — as a win, saying they expect him to keep his word and deliver fair maps.

The commission has in the past held hearings to solicit input, but it’s a different story for the congressional map, which has traditionally been designed in secret and presented to the public at the last minute.

Ten years ago, when Republicans controlled both the legislature and the governor’s office, the map was publicly introduced and adopted in the span of a week. The state Supreme Court later threw it out, saying Republicans unconstitutionally maximized the number of congressional seats for their party while disadvantaging Democrats.

The new, court-ordered map resulted in Democrats gaining four congressional seats in 2018.

Kuniholm said her group is relying on the political checks and balances already in place that could result in fairer maps, unlike in states where one party controls the entire redistricting process.

Wolf, who has supported redistricting reform in the past, could veto any congressional map he doesn’t like, and the Democratic-controlled state Supreme Court could throw out either the congressional map or the General Assembly maps and appoint a third party to produce new maps without lawmakers’ input.

Kuniholm said that’s something the party leaders in Harrisburg want to avoid at all costs, which means there’s still a chance they’ll come to a bipartisan agreement on maps that follow criteria Fair Districts PA has deemed unbiased: that districts be roughly equal in population, keep localities together, and reflect the needs of Pennsylvanians.

To that end, Kuniholm said her group’s members plan to come to the meetings in droves, present their own maps, and persuade lawmakers to do it their way.

“Our goal is to say, ‘We know what a good map looks like, and we’re going to be asking for a good map,’” she said.

Although the reform Fair Districts PA supported didn’t pass in the General Assembly, an altered version was approved by a Senate committee last week. An amendment, introduced by Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill), stripped out proposed limits on how the General Assembly’s own districts are drawn.

It instead prioritizes equal population distribution and avoiding municipality splits in the congressional map rather than considering all standards — including compactness and keeping communities of interest together — with equal weight.

It’s unclear what partisan effect that could have on the state. Democrats tend to cluster in urban areas, while Republicans are spread throughout the state’s rural counties.

Take Pittsburgh, for instance. The city of roughly 300,000 people can fit into an entire congressional district — each of Pennsylvania’s 17 districts will consist of around 752,443 people — and votes heavily Democrat, while outside of the urban area, the rest of Allegheny County tends to vote Republican.

If Pittsburgh were to be split into three congressional districts, two of those would likely lean Democratic. But if the city were wholly contained in one strong Democratic district following Argall’s criteria, the surrounding districts might have a greater chance of electing Republican candidates.

Argall, whose committee will be among the first to vote on the new congressional map, promised transparency in the process, saying he’ll hold hearings this summer to get the public’s input on what the districts should look like, although they have yet to be scheduled.

Sen. Lisa Boscola, a Democrat from Northampton County who wrote the 2021 guardrail legislation, said last week she wasn’t surprised her bill was changed to omit reforms to state lawmakers’ own districts.

Now, she’s hoping the lawmakers keep their word on promises of transparency and public involvement.

“If they don’t, I think you’re going to see an uprising from the grassroots organizations,” she said.

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