Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed congressional redistricting plan.
This story was updated at 6:55 pm 1/21/21 with comment from the Wolf admin.
Lawmakers left a hearing on Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed congressional map with more questions than answers on Friday afternoon.
Amid stalling legislative negotiations that could leave drawing the map up to the state’s courts, Wolf released his own map, after months of silence on specific district boundaries.
He also lent his signature to a map created by Draw the Lines PA, a citizen’s redistricting group that took input from more than 7,000 individuals to create their own vision of the commonwealth’s political topography.
But at a Senate State Government Committee hearing on the proposals, no one from the Wolf administration was present to discuss the specifics of the map — especially a proposed split of the heavily Democratic city of Pittsburgh into two districts that has perturbed both Republican and Black Democrats.
Both committee Chairman Dave Argall, R-Schuylkill, and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Sharif Street, of Philadelphia, pressed two members of Wolf’s redistricting advisory committee for details on who drew the map. But they had no answers.
“Honestly, I have no idea,” Penn State University geography professor Christopher Fowler said. “We weren’t consulted, we weren’t part of it.”
Wolf spokeperson Elizabeth Rementer added that no one from the administration was invited to attend.
At first, Wolf had first only offered criteria for a map. The change of heart, a spokesperson said was because of legislative Republicans’ “failure to include the governor’s public feedback on a map.”
The principles Wolf espoused, drafted by Fowler and four other Pennsylvania academics, included creating a compact map with minimal municipal splits, that reflects the state’s near-even partisan divide, and is responsive to shifts in the electorate.
Street and other Black members of the Senate panel raised concerns that the proposed split of Pittsburgh would limit the power of the city’s geographically dispersed Black community. A leaked draft map Street contributed to kept the city whole, which he argued would at the time would protect Black votes.
Meanwhile, some Republicans also raised concerns about Wolf’s emphasis on proportionality in the maps.
According to Dave’s Redistricting App, an online tool for drawing and analyzing maps, Wolf’s proposal has seven lean-Democratic seats, six that lean Republican, and four that are competitive.
Drawing proportional maps, could lead to splits of rural Republican districts at the expense of urban, densely packed Democratic voters, argued Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, argued.
John Kennedy, a West Chester University professor and an advisor to Wolf’s redistricting committee, disagreed.
Creating competitive, responsive districts out of the commonwealth’s nearly evenly divided electorate doesn’t have to “cut into the other qualities such as communities of interest,” he said, referring to another criteria for fair maps
The Wolf administration has posted a narrative for their map online, which gives some reasoning for its mapping decisions. The Pittsburgh split, the Wolf administration said, was modeled on Draw the Lines’ map, and also allowed for Allegheny County to only be split once.
Draw the Lines Chairperson David Thornburgh added at the hearing that split the Steel City matched Pittsburgh’s natural geographic divisions by the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers, and gave the city an extra representative in Congress, potentially increasing the region’s influence.
It was “a tough call,” Thornburgh said, “but one we feel confident in.”
He emphasized that the citizen-drawn map used input gathered from across the state, and argued that the thousands of submissions would bulletproof it from concerns about bias.
Redistricting is the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional districts to match shifting populations. Pennsylvania’s is particularly difficult because the state is losing a seat on Congress, because other states grew at a faster rate than the Keystone State.
No map has yet reached Wolf’s desk, who must sign it to become law. Wolf’s suggested maps have not been considered, but could theoretically be brought up for a last-minute floor vote in either chamber as soon as Monday
Instead, a plan from House Republicans has been advancing through the General Assembly.
Their map was based on an academic exercise by redistricting advocate and former GOP Lehigh County commissioner Amanda Holt. It was and modified to unify a number of split rural counties whose GOP legislators raised concerns over the splits.
It passed the House in a near-party line vote last week, and advanced out of a Senate committee this week. But Wolf already has expressed his opposition.
“We advanced that bill only because the court mandated deadlines are fast approaching,” Argall said.
He hoped to reach an agreement on a compromise map next week. If Wolf does not sign a map by Jan. 30, the state’s Commonwealth Court will pick a congressional map.
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