How the 2020 census could impact Pa.’s redistricting efforts

Map by Nick Field via Dave's Redistricting

Among the census’ myriad of impacts, the decennial count of all the people in the Commonwealth could help or hamper redistricting efforts across the state.

The answer, redistricting reform advocates say, is in the accuracy of the count.

Chris Satullo, director of Draw the Lines PA, a statewide civic education and engagement initiative that has Pennsylvanians drawing legislative maps, said that redistricting and the census are “interwoven.”

Redistricting is different than reapportionment. 

Just like the census count, both are done every 10 years. Redistricting is the process of deciding how areas will be divided into sections or districts based on the number of seats a state has. The process helps redraw legislative maps in a given region as population shifts occur using census data.

In Pennsylvania, the Legislature is in charge of redrawing its own legislative districts through a five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission, a power granted in Article II, Section 17 of the state constitution.

Reapportionment, on the other hand, is the process of deciding how many seats a state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives, based on changes in population.

Census 2020: Pa. is expected to lose a seat in Congress. Here’s why that’s a huge deal

Satullo expressed concern over the federal government’s lack of motivation to count hard-to-reach groups of the population and minorities. This, Satullo said, “is going to have a million downstream effects,” if segments of the population are not accurately counted.

“If the urban centers are undercounted, while more rural areas are properly counted, that will extenuate the trend that occurred in the gerrymandering in the 2011 redistricting to pump up the power of the rural, less populated parts of the state and depress the political clout of the urban areas,” Satullo said.

Carol Kuniholm, chair and co-founder of Fair Districts PA, a four-year-old statewide coalition for more transparent redistricting agrees, adding that the state’s incarcerated population is an area of concern.

“We have very large prisons in rural communities where those prisons become a pretty substantial number in those districts,” Kuniholm said. “Part of having fair representation is making sure people are counted where they actually live.”

The Census Bureau wants individuals counted by where they live, but this is at odds with Pennsylvania’s voting laws, Kuniholm said.

“If you are incarcerated for a misdemeanor you are still allowed to vote,” Kuniholm said. “But, by law, they are not allowed to register to vote in the places where they are incarcerated, and yet, according to the Census Bureau that’s where they have to be counted.”

As far as gerrymandered districts are concerned, Kuniholm points to last week’s special election in the Lebanon County-based  48th Senate district as an example. She believes that the district does not meet any of the constitutional requirements for legislative line drawing.

Despite Article II, Section 16 of Pennsylvania’s Constitution saying that legislative maps must be compact, contiguous and nearly equal, the 48th Senate district runs from the far-east corner of Lebanon County, through a slice of southern Dauphin County, crosses the Susquehanna River and lands on the eastern banks of York County.

Source: Fair Districts PA, Google Map of Pa. Senate Districts

When redistricting begins this decade, Kuniholm said she hopes it will be Fair Districts PA’s first and last census redistricting initiative.

“We hope to get redistricting done correctly, Kuniholm said, “and then we would quietly disappear.”

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry. Miller has an extensive background in magazine writing, editing and design. She is a graduate of Penn State University where she served as the campus newspaper’s photo editor. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in professional journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to her role at the Capital-Star, Miller enjoys working on her independent zines, Dead Air and Infrared.