Advocates want a more diverse General Assembly. But making that a reality is complicated

By: - December 2, 2021 7:16 am

Members of the Pennsylvania House applaud newly elected Speaker Bryan Cutler on June 22, 2020. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

If the composition of the General Assembly matched Pennsylvania’s rapidly diversifying population,  there would be at least 47 lawmakers who were not white. Instead, there are just 31 elected state legislators who are not white.

The space between Harrisburg and reality could be chalked up to a multitude of things, but as legislative leaders hammer out new political boundaries for the next ten years, advocates have zeroed-in on one trait in particular — how the 203 state House and 50 state Senate districts are drawn.

“This process is really about making sure that people in the Commonwealth have the representation that they need, so their communities can thrive,” Salewa Ogunmefun, executive director of the redistricting advocacy group, Pennsylvania Voice, said.

Redistricting, explained: What it is, how it works, and how Pa. politicians get to draw their own maps

But exactly how to draw maps that protect or grow minority representation in Harrisburg is politically thorny, and could force mapmakers, particularly those charged with drawing new legislative districts, to compromise on other key redistricting values.

At the heart of the tension are separate, seemingly contradictory requirements for legal maps. Under the 14th Amendment, states should not consider race as the predominant factor when drawing lines.

But also, under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, states must sometimes look at racial and linguistic minorities when drawing district lines to avoid diluting the power of Black, Latino, Native American or Asian voters. Typically, this can be avoided by drawing districts where more than 50 percent of district residents are from a single minority group.

Following both of these standards “can be a difficult line to walk,” Legislative Reapportionment Commission Chairperson Mark Nordenberg said at an October hearing. 

Then, add in an overlapping state court precedent, which mandates the map be made of compact, contiguous districts that divide as few municipalities as possible. And all of this is multiplied by the small size of Pennsylvania’s legislative districts, Penn State University geographer Christopher Fowler told the Capital-Star .

‘It’s a Rubik’s Cube’: Pa. grapples with competing redistricting priorities

While the state’s congressional districts will each be about 764,000 people, state Senate districts are made up of 260,000 people, and state House districts comprise just 64,000 people.

Smaller districts, Fowler noted, are easier to gerrymander, because it’s easier for a mapper to divide up or condense individual groups while working with a smaller district.

In particular, this is a problem for African-American voters — and Democrats overall — as they often live in densely packed cities, rather than evenly dispersed across the state.

This clustering also means that if the cartographers value compactness — a basic redistricting metric often looked at by the courts — it would be to the disadvantage of those concentrated groups.

“With compactness as a constraint, you can only draw counter to the interests of the clustered populations,” Fowler told the Capital-Star. “You can never advantage them.”

Still, advocates such as Ogunmefun are hopeful that they can convince the redistricting commission, with the help of more than 700 contributions from everyday citizens, that people’s lives don’t always fit into neat geometric shapes, or follow existing municipal lines.

That can be seen in maps proposed by Pennsylvania Voice, a coalition of community groups and liberal advocacy organizations that “aims to build an inclusive, just and reflective democracy in Pennsylvania.”

Sometimes, the maps undo decades of gerrymandering, with one example suggesting that North Philadelphia be disentangled from the tentacles of five separate districts and united as a single House seat. 

But their maps also suggest some new splits and tendrils, Ogunmegun argues, to better represent other communities of color.

For instance, Pennsylvania Voice suggests breaking off whiter, wealthier neighborhoods of the city of Lancaster, near Franklin and Marshall College, and adding them to a suburban district. This will create a majority-minority Latino district, with the rest of the city and some of its more diverse suburbs.

They also suggest that York city’s state House district eschew its wealthier western and southern suburbs for a less compact design that includes middle- and low-income residents to the north and east. Such a district ”would create a working-class district that enhances the voting power of people of color and young people.”

Finally, as part of a redraw of Pittsburgh’s districts, Ogumefun’s group  suggests a lengthy district that runs from downtown Pittsburgh into its eastern suburbs to create a majority Black district. 

Ogunmefun added that she agrees with a growing group of political scientists, advocates, and Black lawmakers who want mapmakers to focus less on districts that have a clear majority of residents of one demographic group, and more on districts that just offer non-white politicians a chance to win.

Instead, she said she’s interested in expanding the number of so-called opportunity districts, or districts that may not have a majority of any one racial group, or are majority-white but with a sizable minority population.

This philosophy can also be seen in the maps that redistricting reform group Fair Districts PA submitted to Nordenberg and the commission.

By some measures, Fair  Districts’ map increases opportunity for non-white politicians. In the House, the map adds four majority-minority districts for a total of 29 out of 203 seats, and another 14 districts with significant minority of non-white voters, according to online redistricting portal Dave’s Redistricting App.

In the Senate, Fair Districts’ map five majority-minority districts, and an additional six districts with a significant minority of non-white voters.

Most of those new districts consist of coalitions of different demographic groups, rather than a single group. Fair Districts’ map also has one less majority Hispanic district in the House than the current map.

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It may seem heterodox, and could present some legal risks, Ogunmefun acknowledged. 

“Absolutely the strongest argument for you to have in court is 51 percent,” she said. “That is what has held up traditionally over generations.”

But “if we’re talking about representation of people and interests of those communities, and then being able to have voting power, it’s not really as black and white as Black people, Latinx people, Asian-American people in single race, majority-minority districts,” Ogunmefun added.

Pennsylvania already has at least four Black lawmakers who represent majority white districts — among them, state Rep. Austin Davis, D-Allegheny.

First elected in a 2018 special election, Davis said he’d be supportive of more districts such as his 35th House District seat. Made up of a number of Monongahela Valley communities, it’s about 70 percent white from such suburbs as Munhall, Lincoln, and White Oak. 

But his district also includes a sizable minority of Black voters in such boroughs as Duquesne, Clairton, and McKeesport.

Having such a district has allowed him to tackle issues that appeal across the board, from promoting manufacturing in his industrial district to advocating for police reform after the police shooting of Antwon Rose just outside his district.

The mix has worked, Davis said, whose now twice won reelection. And by winning in a diverse district, he argued, he’s breaking down stereotypes of where and how a Black politician can compete.

“What we have seen nationally [is that] minority candidates can compete anywhere, and we should make sure we create as many pathways for them to do that as possible,” Davis told the Capital-Star.

Pa. redistricting is poised to be transparent. Will it be fair? Advocates think yes.

However, Republicans may dispute maps that don’t follow the Voting Rights Act traditional standard.

Jason Torchinsky, a nationally known Republican election attorney who has worked with Pennsylvania Republicans, told The Atlantic in September that the act does justify any district that isn’t majority-minority.

“If your argument is that you need to draw a 40 percent district for some reason that’s race-based, I think that’s a Fourteenth Amendment violation,” he said.

It’s also unclear exactly what the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus is looking for in the new maps — at least until there is a plan in front of them.

In a statement, state Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia, chairperson of the Black caucus, noted the history of cracking and packing that has “been used to minimize or dilute the Black vote.” 

With that in mind, the caucus planned to “carefully review any proposal that may potentially disenfranchise voters of color.” Bullock said. 

“In some communities majority Black or majority-minority districts are appropriate and fair. In other communities, the racial demographics may differ,” Bullock said. “In the end, we should aim to establish representative districts that are not gerrymandered based on things like race, religion, or income.”

The clock is ticking for lawmakers to draw Pa.’s legislative maps. Here’s why

Closed-door negotiations on the state legislative maps are ongoing between Democrats and Republicans. In past cycles, both parties have been asked to present their own statewide maps, after which the chairperson is tasked with breaking ties where the two parties cannot agree. 

Legislative sources noted a similar process was underway now. A vote on the new maps is expected sometime in the coming weeks.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is the Capital-Star's House reporter. He previously covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter. You can reach him at 845-891-4306.

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