Pa.’s new legislative maps are better, but not good enough | Opinion

The new maps are slightly more compact than the gerrymandered 2012 maps, but that’s not saying much

The new Pa. Senate map (Capital-Star file)

By Mike Walsh

Last month, the Legislative Reapportionment Committee (LRC) released final district maps for the state Senate and House. They’re now the subject of litigation.

The new maps are a big improvement over the maps from 2012, which were gerrymandered to help the GOP. Unfortunately, the new maps have several significant flaws, and they demonstrate yet again why Pennsylvania needs an independent redistricting commission.

Here are some of the flaws in the LRC maps:

Both maps have a population deviation over 8%. Population deviation is the difference between the most and least populated districts. A population deviation this high is discriminatory to people who live in districts with more than the average number of residents, and it gives more power to people who live in districts with less than the average. So population deviation can be viewed the measure of unfairness in a map.

In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court set the maximum for population deviation in state legislative districts at 10%. However, that’s an outdated limit, and it enables too much inequality. With modern mapping applications, you can easily draw maps with population deviation of less than 5% (unless you’re trying to gerrymander). Many states have limits for population deviation at 5% or less, but not Pennsylvania.

The districts are not compact enough. The new maps are slightly more compact than the gerrymandered 2012 maps, but that’s not saying much. The LRC altered existing districts instead of drawing districts from scratch, so the current maps inherit much of the un-compactness found in the old maps.

Do these districts look compact? (The most compact district would be a circle.)

Legislative districts in southeastern Pennsylvania (screen capture).

Not to me. They fail the eye test. They’re all Senate districts in southeastern Pennsylvania, but un-compact districts can be found in other parts of the state as well.

The maps protect incumbents. The LRC drew district borders to reduce the number of incumbents who had to face one another in a primary or run in an unfavorable district. That made some districts less compact. Nowhere is this clearer than the narrow peninsula from Senate district 16 (where incumbent Patrick Browne lives) that juts into district 14, so he does not have to run in heavily Democratic Allentown.

The language in the state constitution establishing the LRC, does NOT mention the need to protect incumbents. Incumbents come and go, but the citizens of the state have to live with the districts for up to a decade and perhaps even longer.

I’d like to see the redistricting process amended so incumbents were forbidden from trying to influence maps and the mappers were forbidden from considering incumbent addresses.

Pa. court rejects GOP request to use old legislative lines in midterm; more challenges pending

The Senate map discriminates against southeast Pennsylvania. The 21 Senate districts in southeast Pennsylvania have a total of 67,000 more people than average, but thirteen rural districts in the central and western parts of the state as well as the five Senate districts in Allegheny County have a total of 67,000 too few residents. This gives residents in the central and southwest portions of the state more political power than those in the southeast. (Senate districts average 260,054 residents.)

The maps favor the GOP even though Democrats have a statewide registration advantage of almost 600,000 voters. With a 50-50 split in the voting, the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, Dave’s Redistricting application, and Professor John Nagle of Carnegie-Mellon University all predict that the GOP would still control both the House and Senate. Even if they receive a majority of votes, the Democrats could still end up the minority party in both chambers.

How can anyone consider the LRC maps fair when they bake in such an advantage for the GOP, the minority party?

Mike Walsh lives in Gulph Mills, Pa., and works with Draw the Lines PA to promote fair redistricting in Pennsylvania. His views are his own.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.