The ceiling of the main Rotunda inside Pennsylvania’s Capitol building. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).
In a year packed with political drama, no process was perhaps more fraught and high-stakes than the once-a-decade redrawing, based on U.S. census data, of legislative districts across the country — including Pennsylvania.
And while that remapping, in both theory and principle, is supposed to be reflective of the broader racial, ethnic and demographic shifts in a changing country, recently released research paints a very different picture.
Minorities make up a majority, or a near-majority in fewer of those newly drawn districts, even though they account for “nearly all of the population growth” nationwide over the last decade, an analysis by Wichita State University political scientist Brian Amos concluded.
Pennsylvania was among the states that bucked this trend, adding minority representation during its decennial remapping, according to Amos’ analysis, as reported by Pluribus News, an online news outlet that covers legislative and policy trends nationwide.
The key difference: States that left redistricting up to commissions added minority seats, while “the number of majority-minority seats dropped most significantly in states where Republicans fully controlled the redistricting process,” Pluribus News reported.
In Pennsylvania, a five-member commission, made up of the four floor leaders in the House and Senate (two Democrats and two Republicans for each chamber) and a chairman, who is supposed to be a compromise candidate, but is almost always named by the state Supreme Court, oversaw the remapping of 203 House seats and 50 state Senate seats.
The Capital-Star spoke with Salewa Ogunmefun, the executive director of the voting rights group Pennsylvania Voice, about the trends and policy decisions that put the commonwealth in the company of states that expanded minority representation, and what comes next.
The conversation below has been lightly edited for content and clarity.
Q: The research shows that Pennsylvania added one majority-minority district. It also redrew seats that made the House more competitive for Democrats, leading to last month’s Democratic takeover. What changed?
A: What happened in Pa. was an incredible shift in the process itself, and the people who had a say in the process.
We had more ways for the community to engage than before. In the past, folks could come to one to three meetings and be there for five hours. And that was the most that would happen. [Now there was a] substantial way that people could offer input. This year, there were more meetings than in the history of this process. People were able to submit their own maps, in a way that was easy and convenient, which was how the democratic process should function.
And after the maps came out, they had the same opportunity to offer input as an expert from Penn State or the Center for Rural Pennsylvania did. That created an opportunity for our partners to have a voice in the process that was deeply appreciated, and recognized how much work was put into [it].
All of that input was submitted to the [Pennsylvania] Supreme Court. It gave the legal ground for the Supreme Court to make the decision that it did.
(Editor’s Note: In March, the state Supreme Court issued a 4-page opinion unanimously finding Pennsylvania’s legislative lines were constitutional).
Q: The panel’s chairperson, Mark Nordenberg, was unlike past chairs who were more passive participants in the process. He played a far more active role.
A: Two people made history — [Mark] Nordenberg was one of them. Because of chairmen in the past, we walked in concerned, expecting another white man with power. And here was another white man with power. It’s always white men with power, and then they turn around and draw the lines … The changes would not have happened if Nordenberg hadn’t stepped in to represent the people of Pennsylvania. His openness and willingness to understand what the people needed, instead of simply trying to navigate through the feuding [between the commission members.] We so appreciated his leadership.
Q: And [then-House Minority] Leader Joanna McClinton?
A: [Joanna] McClinton’s historic appointment to this commission was the first thing that happened – not just because she is a Black woman, but also because she is a former public defender. And she understood that when people are incarcerated they’re not less people. With her introduction of the resolution to end prison gerrymandering, we showed who this population was and why they needed to be represented.
(Editor’s Note: In a turnaround, the reapportionment commission passed a modified version of McClinton’s proposal, limiting the number of incarcerated people who would be counted at their previous residences, not in the counties in which they were imprisoned.)
Q: With redistricting done, what’s next on the agenda for you?
A: For us, it’s continuing our voting rights work … our goal is a democracy that includes full participation. Our voting rights programs are really focused on making sure the process gives people the most opportunity to participate in that process.
And how … we have more accountability for our government is a big part of our analysis. Polls show that voters all over the state would support a minimum wage hike, but it remains at $7.25/hr. because of Harrisburg. So what are the ways that we, as a coalition, can balance those systems of power to more effectively represent ourselves?
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