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

They must draw the maps by Jan. 2022, but likely will try to finish early to meet deadlines for next year’s election

By: - October 25, 2021 5:08 pm

The Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission meets on Oct. 25, 2021. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Pennsylvania’s redistricting will begin in earnest this week, after lawmakers approved the population data that will decide the shape of 203 state House and 50 state Senate districts.

How those maps are drawn will heavily influence which party controls the legislative majority in Harrisburg for the next decade, and can set the state’s policy agenda.

But an interlocking set of statutory and constitutional deadlines will make these five officials’ task — drawing a new, legal, fair map that follows court precedent in a transparent fashion — even more challenging.

“We are going to be under great pressure,” state Legislative Reapportionment Commission Chairperson Mark Nordenberg said during a meeting on Monday morning. 

Nordenberg, the former University of Pittsburgh chancellor who was appointed by the state Supreme Court, joins House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre; House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia; Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, on the commission.

The five-member panel  has until Jan. 12, 2022 to produce a preliminary map. 

However, citing Census data delays and looming deadlines under state election law, Nordenberg said he hoped to finish the maps “much sooner than that.”

 If the past is any guide, many tough decisions likely will be made behind closed doors in private meetings between legislative leaders from the two chambers or their respective staff. 

Nordenberg will act as the tie-breaker if the two parties can’t compromise on where to draw a specific line.

Those conversations will produce a preliminary map that the commission will vote on during a public meeting. After the plan passes, any person aggrieved by the plan then has 30 days to challenge the map under the state constitution. 

Then, there are an additional 30 days after the maps have been approved for any person to file a legal challenge to the maps in the state Supreme Court.

Such challenges are common, and sometimes successful. In the 2011 redistricting cycle, state legislators were elected by their old districts for the 2012 election after the state Supreme Court ruled the commission’s first mapping plan unconstitutional. That map was drawn by a Republican-controlled commission.

This cycle, Democratic legislative leaders have expressed optimism that Nordenberg’s focus on public input may be enough to avoid a legal challenge.

Nordenberg “has been the most thorough and the most transparent chair we have had, ever,” McClinton said at a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon in Harrisburg last week. “We’ve never had this many hearings, we’ve never had this many people testify. We’ve never had this much public input. So I do believe that we are going to get to the place where we have a lot less litigation.”

The commission already has held 14 public meetings, including five public hearings to receive public responses.

But redistricting is also more closely watched and understood than ever, Capitol insiders agree. And with so much at stake in the maps, it’s hard for others to imagine the commission escaping a legal challenge, one veteran said.

“Because of how intensely politically and intensely scrutinized these maps will be, the challenge is likely inevitable,” Adam Bonin, a Democratic elections attorney, told the Capital-Star.

It’s not yet clear from where those challenges might originate. Republicans have been vocal opposing an earlier commission decision to count some 40,000 state prison inmates at their home address, rather than in their prison cell.

That will represent a small but significant shift of population back to the state’s cities and away from the state’s rural areas, where prisons are often located.

At the meeting Monday, the commission approved two sets of data, one with prisoners reallocated, one without.

Benninghoff told the Capital-Star after Monday’s meeting that waiting for two different data sets “put ourselves into a crunch” for time.

While he agreed the process so far had been transparent, he compared changing where prisoners were counted to gerrymandering.

Benninghoff demurred when he was asked whether his caucus would sue if the legislative maps are drawn using the prison adjusted population data.

“You’re asking questions for the future, right now let’s deal with what we’ve got today,” he said.

An additional deadline further complicates the map timeline. Earlier this year, the Department of State told the commission that it needs the maps by Jan. 24, 2022 to hold its primary on the third Tuesday in May, as prescribed under state law in non-presidential election years.

That early deadline is needed so candidates for office have three full weeks, as allowed by state law, to gather petitions from constituents in the new districts so they can appear on the May primary ballot.

In order to allow office-seekers their 60 days of constitutionally guaranteed time, and meet the deadlines for an on-time 2022 election, the commission may have to finish the preliminary maps quickly. 

Senate Democratic leader Costa suggested the commission could finish a draft within 30 to 45 days to allow for the new maps to be adopted without cutting into the timeline for candidates for office.

“I am adamant about trying to get this thing done so we don’t have to move the primary or change the election process,” Costa told the Capital-Star.

While that may sound like a short timeline, Costa said he thought modern mapping technology would allow citizens to draw their own maps and provide feedback even quicker than usual.

Commission chairperson Nordenberg added that the approved redistricting data would be sent to online apps that allow the public to draw their own maps, such as DistrictBuilder and Dave’s Redistricting App.

Nordenberg encouraged those who hoped to submit their own map to act sooner rather than later if they wanted the commission to consider their input.

The commission only draws the state’s legislative maps. Congressional maps are drawn with legislation that must be passed with a floor vote and signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

Benninghoff said he expected the House State Government Committee, which was tasked with drawing maps in the House, to have maps ready by the end of the year.

The committee just finished a set of road hearings across the commonwealth on congressional redistricting. Committee chairperson Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, told the Capital-Star they hadn’t begun drawing the maps yet, and wasn’t sure if they’d use the data approved by state redistricting commission or not.

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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.