Where to draw the lines in Black, Latino communities at center of Pa. legislative map fight

Some leaders in communities of color have raised concerns that the proposed House map may, intentionally or not, dilute their voices

By: - January 17, 2022 7:09 am

House Minority LeaderJoanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, speaks at a Legislative Reapportionment Commission meeting on August 24, 2021. (Courtesy of House Democrats)

Pennsylvania’s population grew in the last decade, but only because the state’s  Black, Latino, and Asian communities expanded.

So, as the commonwealth took a look at how to redraw its t political maps to match this new reality, Allentown radio station owner Victor Martinez felt confident that Latinos, who were the fastest growing group in the state, would see a big boost in political power.

The new lines will heavily influence which parties — and candidates — win and lose a say in Harrisburg for the next 10 years. 

But the maps approved by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission last month left Martinez worried that despite his community’s growth, they’ll face another 10 years with little political power.

He’s not alone.

Across Pennsylvania, from the state capital to the Lehigh Valley, some leaders in communities of color have raised concerns that the proposed House map may, intentionally or not, dilute their voices, even as the map’s proponents hope it will expand, not reduce, minority representation in the legislature.

The proposed House map “is not in the best interest of the citizenry,” Greater Harrisburg NAACP president Franklin Allen told the Capital-Star of a proposed split of Harrisburg. “Any time you split blocks, it is misappropriation to begin with.”

Compared to the current state House map, the number of majority-minority districts in the draft map stays the same at 25 seats.

But the average percentage of non-white voters in each of those districts falls by 2 percentage points in the proposed House map compared to current map, according to a Capital-Star analysis.

And despite the Latino community’s growth, the number of majority Latino seats stayed the same at four. On average, those districts became 4.5 percent less Latino in their makeup compared to the current lines.

“I was hoping that we wouldn’t go backwards,” Martinez, who owns four radio stations in eastern Pennsylvania, told the Capital-Star. “If anything, at least leave us where we’re at — or let us grow.”

Instead, the draft state House map focuses on expanding the number of overall districts with significant, but not a majority, of minority voters in them.

These are so-called “opportunity districts,” or districts which are not majority-minority, but have a significant population of non-white voters who can influence the final outcome. 

Experts typically consider these districts to have populations of at least 37 percent, but less than 50 percent, of Black, Latino, or Asian voters. 

Besides the four majority Latino districts, five others districts’ populations are 30 percent or more Latino — including a brand new district in Lancaster, without an incumbent lawmaker, where a Latina former city councilor has already announced her candidacy.

But for Martinez, this strategy felt like a reversal.

“The reality is that yes, a district may be more minority-oriented,” Martinez said. “But then none of those minorities get a chance to actually elect someone that can represent them individually in Harrisburg.”

And it highlights the fine line that mappers have to walk when drawing lines in minority communities, whose votes have historically been diluted or taken for granted. But this also provided a potential avenue for Republicans furious at the new lines to have them struck down.

Federal law requires that minority communities’ votes are protected in redistricting under the Voting Rights Act. In the past, the law sometimes was used to create super-majority districts that limited Black, Latino or Asian voters’ power to a single representative.

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But in recent years, some political scientists and activists have argued Black and brown voters can have a greater say when they’re paired with like-minded white communities.

When Black voters are drawn into a single district, they lose their chance to “have incredibly high influence over multiple districts,” argued Salewa Ogunmegun of Pennsylvania Voice, a coalition of state advocacy groups that wants expanded minority representation.

Having one district that is a lock for a candidate of a particular race is “great, but you don’t have any real power” to influence public policy on a state level, Ogunmefun added.

Instead, she has advocated throughout the process, through a series of maps drawn with community input from Allentown, Lancaster, Pittsburgh and other locales, for more racially diverse districts.

The commission’s chairperson, Mark Nordenberg, seems to have taken the advice.

The draft map has six more opportunity districts than the current map. It creates brand new districts in Montgomery and Philadelphia counties, and shifts existing lines in Allegheny and Monroe counties among other places.

By shifting more lines, the map also creates vacant majority-minority, or minority-influenced, seats in Harrisburg, Lancaster, and Allentown, among other places.

All told, there are seven such districts in the House. The Senate map also proposes drawing one in an Allentown-based district. 

“The priority is you neither want to pack or crack,” Nordenberg told the Capital-Star, referring to practices that are used to limit minority voters’ power.

“You do not want to disperse the members of the minority group in ways that deprive them of their opportunities to have an influence,” he continued. “On the other hand, you do not want to pack so many [voters] into a district that their influence is limited to that single place.”

For their part, Democrats and other allies praised the map for undoing decades of gerrymandering that has left Pennsylvania’s legislature much whiter than the state at large.

“The preliminary maps create opportunities for the voices of more people of color to be represented in the General Assembly,” Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia, the chairperson of the Legislative Black caucus, told the Capital-Star. “These maps bring us one step closer to a reflective democracy, representing the diversity of Pennsylvania.”

But in remarks at a hearing Friday, House Republicans — who have vocally opposed the map for cutting into their majority — pointed to split cities and dropping minority populations to argue that the map is unlawful.

“I am convinced that the splits of Harrisburg, Allentown, Lancaster and Reading create specific problems” House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said.

Citing both the Voting Rights Act and a recently passed constitutional amendment prohibiting racial discrimination, Benninghoff, added that coming changes to the draft map “must be faithful to our constitution and federal law.”

Districts that look like they are diluting minority voters can be justified under federal law if election results show that those voters are still influential, said Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“There might be reasons why you might not draw a 50 percent plus-one district,” Li told the Capital-Star. “For example, you could keep a town together. Maybe people feel like that’s important. Or you could avoid pairing incumbents, or something like that.”

These districts might also perform well because the minority voters in the districts have an outsized role in the primaries. 

Districts can be less than 50 percent minority, but that group could still wield a lot of influence Li noted.

For instance, in a heavily Democratic district that is 40 percent Black, the most important election is the Democratic primary. And in that race, Black voters will likely make up a large, potentially the largest, section of the voters in that race — meaning they can pick their ideal candidate.

By focusing on the primary, it also means that a district’s minority percentage can slip below 50 percent, even as it performs in accordance with federal law. 

But an added variable is that not every demographic votes at the same rate. Black voters are among the most dedicated in the country, while Latino turnout is usually low

Martinez pointed to Democratic state Rep. Manny Guzman’s Reading-based 127th District as an example.

The city, which has a sizable Latino population, was represented by two white men until 2020, when a longtime incumbent retired and endorsed Guzman.

In the draft map the district expands further into Reading’s suburbs. While still a majority, Latinos make up almost 12 percent less of the district’s voting-age population according to Dave’s Redistricting App, an online map analysis tool.

Martinez said he’s “not looking into packing any community — not the whites, not the Blacks, not the Latinos, not the Asians.”

But the Latino community has grown in the last 10 years, enabling it to elect its  preferred candidate, Martinez said, “and I don’t want now to run the chance of losing them on a bad day, on a low turnout day.”

But Guzman was blunt. His appeal has nothing to do with his race, he argued.

“People in Reading don’t give two sh*ts whether I’m Latino or not,” Guzman told the Capital-Star. 

He then reconsidered slightly.

“Some of them do care,” Guzman continued. “But most of them, I was able to convince because I talked about my vision for the city of Reading — and it just so happens I speak Spanish.”

Overall, he thought the map could see a few tweaks in Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley to help his community, and acknowledged that it might make his reelections a bit harder.

But more importantly, he also thought the map gave Democrats a better chance to get a majority, and give “viable” Latino candidates — who have already started to show an interest in improving and representing their community — a fair shot.

“None of these seats are ever guaranteed for a particular race,” Guzman said. “The best the maps can do is offer an opportunity.”

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But the concerns aren’t just in the Latino community. Some from the small central Pennsylvania cities split by the map raised concerns that the attempt to unpack their communities could also backfire.

Harrisburg’s Allen told the Capital-Star that he’s concerned that a new majority minority district is, in fact, weakening the voting power of the city’s Black population.

Harrisburg is currently united in one district. But the draft map splits the state’s capital city down the middle.

The northern district joins Black and white neighborhoods with the city’s West Shore suburbs across the Susquehanna River in Cumberland County. 

A new district without a representative was then drawn to include the city’s predominantly Black neighborhood of Allison Hill, as well as growing Latino wards with white suburbs to the east, such as Swatara and Hummelstown.

The result matches the goals that Nordenberg and activists have laid out — increasing the chances for minority representation. 

Democratic state Rep. Patty Kim, of Harrisburg, the state House’s only Asian-American representative, likely retains her seat in a district where almost 38 percent of the voting age population are from communities of color, according to Dave’s Redistricting App.

“It was shocking at first” to see the new map, Kim told the Capital-Star. 

“But after letting the idea of the city split in two districts sink in a bit, one positive aspect is that I’ll have a partner in the House looking out for city residents,” Kim added. “We can combine our resources and better serve them.” 

Meanwhile, 55 percent of the new Dauphin County-based district’s voting age population will be Black, Latino, or Asian — likely enough to allow for a coalition candidate to win, giving Harrisburg’s communities of color an extra seat in the state House.

But the district’s minority population fell by 11 percentage points from the old district that included all of Harrisburg, according to a Capital-Star analysis. And to Allen, joining Harrisburg’s affluent, white suburbs with lower-income Black and brown communities doesn’t make sense.

“You have a distinct culture there between Hummelstown and Allison Hill,” he added. “Anyone with any ability to creatively think will know that.”

From schools to sewers, those communities have vastly different needs, and a representative may struggle to juggle the two competing priorities.

And the district actually electing someone familiar with the community’s struggles is “a big if,” and a prospect Allen doesn’t think Black voters should face.

“What has happened is — it sounds good on paper,” Allen told the Capital-Star. “Now, where are the dollars for the community? Where are the investments for the community?”

For her part, Ogunmefun, of Pennsylvania Voice, acknowledged that her group wanted to finish an analysis of racial voting patterns of the maps in Harrisburg, the Lehigh Valley, Reading, and Lancaster before commenting on the maps further.

“What we have seen in our initial analysis makes me have more questions than I have answered,” Ogunmefun said.

And with so much on the line, the issue won’t be going away. 

Redistricting chair Nordenberg defends proposed state House map against GOP attacks

“I seriously doubt in the political atmosphere that we live in today this is going to be accepted and beneficial enough for any particular community without someone out there challenging it,” Martinez said.

The commission could vote on a final proposal as soon as this week.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.