Rolling the dice on redistricting was a bad bet for Pa. House Republicans | Opinion

GOP leaders’ refusal to engage on redistricting reform helps to explain their stunning loss of power

Outgoing Pa. House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghfoff, R-Centre (Capital-Star photo by Peter Hall).

Outgoing Pa. House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghfoff, R-Centre (Capital-Star photo by Peter Hall).

By Patrick Beaty

When the General Assembly convenes in early January, Republicans will have 13 fewer seats, putting Democrats in a stronger position than they have had in more than a decade.

Few saw this coming. After all, Republicans currently hold an overwhelming majority of 113 to 89, including one Democratic vacancy. And Republicans were expected to do well in the 2022 mid-term election, both nationally and in Pennsylvania, mostly due to rising inflation, increased crime and a negative view among many voters about the overall direction of the country.

In January, Democrats will have three vacancies — one from a death, two by resignation — deadlocking the 203-member chamber at 101-101. The seats, however, are in districts that favor Democrats. But it could take several months before control of the chamber is fully settled.

But on Election Day, voters clearly were sending a message. 

Democrats and many independents were motivated by the desire to preserve democracy and protect against extremism. Many voters, regardless of party, were also responding to the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion. Democratic candidates ran hard on that issue, making sure Pennsylvania voters knew what would happen if Republicans controlled both the General Assembly and the governor’s office.

Then there is the redistricting effect. 

Political party operatives seem to agree that changes made earlier this year to the map of state House districts had a major – perhaps even decisive – impact on the election results. But that’s about the extent of their agreement. From there it’s all a matter of perspective. 

Democrats – as well as most redistricting experts and reformers – believe that the new House map is much better than the old one as a reflection of the commonwealth’s political and social demography. From their perspective, the election results for the state House confirm the fairness of the map approved by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC).  

Not surprisingly, House Republicans see it much differently.  

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Republicans claim the House map was drawn to increase the number of seats won by Democrats above and beyond what should be expected based upon the state’s political geography. Their argument is basically that Republican voters are spread out across much larger geographic areas than Democratic voters who are more concentrated in urban areas, so the electoral map should favor Republicans. 

An analysis of the House map by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project concluded that it actually did slightly favor Republicans, predicting that the GOP should retain control of the chamber 102 to 101 based upon the results of the two most recent elections for president and U.S. Senate. 

Nevertheless, Republicans derided the LRC mapping process as “outcome-based,” and they accused the commission’s chair, Mark Nordenberg, of putting a Democratic finger on the scale rather than acting as a neutral arbiter between the parties. (Most everyone else praised Nordenberg for rising above partisan bickering, following constitutional requirements and producing legislative maps that were upheld by a unanimous state Supreme Court).

So, here’s the question. 

If House Republicans really believe what they say about how the redistricting process played out, why didn’t they do something about it when they had the chance?

Republicans have controlled both chambers of the General Assembly over the past decade thanks largely to maps drawn by an LRC with a Republican chair. They have known since at least 2015 that the next LRC chair would be chosen by a Supreme Court with a majority of justices elected as Democrats.

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In 2018, their Republican colleagues in the Senate sent them a proposed constitutional amendment to create a redistricting commission with membership evenly divided between the two major political parties, plus a few members representing independent voters. Rather than taking up the Senate-passed bill, House Republicans chose instead to take an early summer recess and the bill died when the session ended later that year.

To be clear, redistricting reform advocates such as Fair Districts PA and others had already stopped supporting that bill due to unrelated amendments that would have divided the state’s appellate courts into regional election districts. But despite an effort by then Majority Leader Dave Reed to salvage a compromise reform bill, the House Republican caucus chose not to engage on redistricting reform.

Reform advocates were not completely surprised. They always knew that without the ability for voters to place issues on the ballot through direct initiative as allowed in some other states, the chances were slim for a truly independent redistricting commission. And that Republican legislators would only pass a bill if they thought it was in their own political interest to do so.

Over the next four years, House Republican leaders bottled up multiple reform bills, several of which contained new map-drawing criteria to limit unnecessary divisions of counties and municipalities, protect racial and language minorities and prohibit partisan gerrymandering – all areas where they now say the new House map falls short.

So why didn’t they even try to enact new mapping rules that might have somehow improved their chances in the redistricting process?  Perhaps they never believed they could lose so many seats so fast, regardless of obvious shifts in population over the past decade. Maybe they thought the federal courts would save them in the end, though that was always a long shot at best.

For whatever reason, House Republican leaders ultimately decided to just roll the dice on redistricting. Right now, that doesn’t appear to have been a good bet.

Patrick Beaty was the volunteer legislative director of Fair Districts PA from 2017 to 2022. The opinions expressed here are entirely his own. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. 

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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.