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

“There’s no such thing as a perfect map, it always embeds a series of compromises,” Thornburgh said.

By: - September 9, 2021 4:30 pm

The “Citizens’ Map” from Draw the Lines PA.

Pennsylvania politicians must redraw 17 congressional districts, and 253 legislative seats by the end of the coming fall to match population shifts.

This process, known as redistricting, can dictate who holds political power for the next decade. It’s abuse to cement that power unfairly for one party or another is known as gerrymandering.

But differing priorities, from as simple a goal as compact districts to as vague as keeping communities together, show the complexity inherent to evenly fitting Pennsylvania’s 67 counties and 13 million residents into thoughtful and representative districts.

Some advocates organized a coalition of dozens of academic and civic groups known as Draw the Lines PA, which is led by the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based good government organization, have already released their own map as a starting point.

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

Their map, which combines thousands of Pennsylvanians’ opinions into a single “Citizens’ Map,” is just one of many that likely will be submitted to the General Assembly as it plots out the new congressional lines. 

The committee’s president David Thornburgh told the Capital-Star, that the intent of the proposal is to start a concrete conversation about what the new congressional boundaries should look like.

“Real accountability means, ‘Show me a map and get my reaction and feedback to the map,’ not just 50,000 foot conceptual thinking,” Thornburgh said. “It’s time to talk maps.”

The advocacy group drew the Citizens’ Map by hand, attempting to mirror the compactness, competitiveness, and minority representation of more than 1,500 submissions to the group.

Once their own map was drawn, Draw the Lines fine tuned its product with input from citizen participants to make final decisions on how to match districts to regions.

The resulting map split Pittsburgh in half, sticking each into Democratic-leaning districts in western Pennsylvania.

The map uses “the confluence of the three rivers and the Fort Pitt Bridge as a natural … boundary,” a summary reads.

The organization argued that splitting Pittsburgh prevents the splitting of neighboring western Pennsylvania counties.

It also divides up the growing, south-central Pennsylvania region around Harrisburg, York, Lancaster and Carlisle into three, separate districts. 

One unites Lancaster and Lebanon counties with Harrisburg’s southeastern suburbs, such as Hershey. Another keeps York County whole, adding Harrisburg’s western suburbs in Cumberland County. 

A third district places Harrisburg proper, its remaining East Shore suburbs, and rural northern Dauphin County into a district mostly representing regions west of the Susquehanna River and Blue Mountain, stretching all the way to Altoona.

This choice “reflects the difficult trade-offs that have to be made while mapping,” Draw the Lines’ description notes.

It adds that keeping Harrisburg whole would necessitate splitting nearby Lebanon County. 

“When these trade-offs arose, the Citizens’ Map generally hews to the standard set by the [state Supreme] Court in 2018,” the description concludes.

That year, the high court struck down the state’s Republican-drawn 2011 congressional map. Part of the argument for the ruling, justices wrote, was that the old map’s unnecessary and “seemingly arbitrary political subdivision splits.”


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Joe Syzmanski, an analyst with Elections Daily, a non-partisan website, and a Lancaster County native, told the Capital-Star he was surprised at how his home region was split.

In particular, Syzmanski argued that Dauphin and Cumberland counties were similar, and should stay together in a district, like they are in the current map, rather than be split to save neighboring counties from division.

It also draws south central Pennsylvania’s increasingly competitive cities and suburbs into three solid Republican districts.

“There should be a somewhat competitive seat in south central [Pennsylvania] and this map fails at doing so,” Syzmanski said.

His assessment was echoed by some on social media, many of whom lived in the region, and bristled at the three-way split.


With so many competing priorities, observed political analyst Ben Forstate, someone will walk away unhappy with the proposal.

A district attempting to keep a community together, such as Harrisburg and its suburbs, might have to ignore county lines or river banks, Forstate noted. But prioritize avoiding those splits, and a mapper might join dissimilar regions to get to the right population.

“Dauphin County is very diverse and it was thrown in with a part of the state which is not particularly diverse and doesn’t have a lot of direct ties,” Forstate said. “On the other hand, I think there’s a lot of competing priorities in this map, and one is to minimize county splits.”

Some groups have already begun to focus on how to arrange priorities. 

Pennsylvania Voice is a coalition of progressive advocacy groups that represent the “fastest growing communities,” including Latino and Asian communities, but that “are significantly under-represented in local and state elected office.”

The group is more focused on state-level redistricting. But Salewa Ogunmefun, the group’s executive director, told to the Capital-Star last month that “a simple circle or simple square” is “not the reality of how people live their lives.”

While focusing on making a pleasant district to look at may seem an easy way to avoid gerrymandering, such a district could still fall short of representation, especially for minority communities, Ogunmefun said.

Instead, mappers of all stripes should make the “representation of the community and the ability for communities to have authority of governance of themselves” as much a priority as basics, such as compactness and contiguity.

Thornburgh acknowledged that competing priorities make a different map.

“It’s a Rubik’s Cube problem,” he said. “You change one thing, you have to change something else. 

But overall, he challenged others who disagreed with his proposal to offer up their own vision. 

“I’ve been living with this mapmaking business for five years now. There’s no such thing as a perfect map, it always embeds a series of compromises,” Thornburgh said. “And the question is, what are they?”

The compromises in the Citizens’ Map, he added, already could claim some legitimacy from the more than 7,000 Pennsylvanians who submitted maps to his organization.

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

The map was also shared with all 253 state legislators,, Thornburgh said, who will have the final say on the congressional map. Under state law, the congressional districts are passed like legislation and must be signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf.

This presents Wolf, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled General Assembly with a need to find compromise. Otherwise, the state’s high court could once again step in and draw the map.

The state legislative maps will be drawn by a separate commission, run by the four legislative floor leaders and a fifth member, chair Mark Nordenberg.

The maps also must be completed by January 2022, otherwise candidates for office will not know what districts they will run in and where they have to collect signatures to appear on the ballot.

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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.