Listening to GOP lawmakers, Pa. House committee doesn’t vote on citizen-drawn map

Advocates, Democrats wait to see that they’ve been heard on congressional lines

By: - December 13, 2021 12:11 pm

Rep. Seth Grove questions Wolf administration officials during a Feb. 13, 2019 budget hearing in the Capitol. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Pennsylvania House Republicans’ initial redistricting plan, drawn by a noted citizen mapper, has drawn internal criticisms from GOP lawmakers whose home counties would be divided up to make all 17 congressional districts equal in population down to a single person.

The plan, which House State Government Committee Chairperson Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, announced last week, was scheduled for a committee vote Monday but did not come up.

Instead, Grove and the committee advanced two empty bills, without a map, to which the House could add district lines, including those proposed by redistricting reform advocate Amanda Holt, of Lehigh County, and set them up for a future floor vote.

“We have a timeline to get these maps done, and we’re going to keep the trains rolling to meet those deadlines,” Grove said after the meeting. 

The Department of State has said it needs district boundaries by Jan. 24 to allow for the state’s May 2022 primary to go forward as planned. If there are too many delays, the state Supreme Court could step in and draw the map itself.

The maps must be redrawn to match the new U.S. Census numbers, and the lines will heavily influence who wins each district for the next decade. Pennsylvania will shrink from 18 to 17 congressional seats as a result of the decennial remapping. 

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

The sudden decision from Grove to pull the previously introduced map dismayed redistricting advocates, who said it echoed the Legislature’s old, opaque ways, and not the transparent process lawmakers promised over the summer.

“There’s this sense of foreboding and uncertainty about where we are,” Draw the Lines PA executive director David Thornburgh told reporters Monday morning.

And the plan’s cartographer, Holt, even was skeptical of her map’s guiding principles.

A proposed Pa. congressional map drawn by Amanda Holt.

“I think maps that include some population deviation allows you to better balance [other redistricting] criteria,” such as communities of interest or compactness, Holt told the Capital-Star.

Under federal legal precedent, states must draw congressional districts that are equal in population “as nearly as practicable,” under the principle of “one person, one vote.” For Pennsylvania, that means each of its 17 districts must have 764,864 people, based on 2020 census results.

Whether a map has violated this precedent is highly dependent on the circumstances and what the alternative maps were, according to a September 2021 Congressional Research Service report.

But “elevating population to be the most important thing above anything else” when drawing new lines, Holt said, “creates some oddities in the district that are not necessary and do not need to exist.”

Those oddities in the Holt plan include splitting counties within the congressional districts of seven of the State Government Committee’s 15 Republican members. Two Lebanon County lawmakers — GOP state Reps. Frank Ryan and Russ Diamond — even put out a statement opposing the map, saying the county needed “dedicated representation.”

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

In a hearing last week, Rep. Louis Schmitt, R-Blair, highlighted a two -ear-old blog post in which Holt wrote skeptically of prioritizing population equity over splitting counties. 

Holt has “has prepared other maps that have very little population deviation that keep Blair County whole,” Schmitt told the Capital-Star. “As she admitted, when you emphasize precise equality of population, that leads to a greater number of needless splits.” 

What the eventual map will look like is even less clear now after the House punted. And advocates and Democrats said despite the show around Holt’s proposal, they’ve still been left out of the process.

“We voted on a shell game. We voted for a blank piece of paper without a map on it to move forward” Rep. Scott Conklin, of Centre County, the committee’s ranking Democrat said after the meeting. “This is how they’ve done it every time. We had the opportunity this time to be transparent…but we did here in this chamber what was always done in the past.”

Any map must also be signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who already has laid out what he’s looking for in a map.

A council of Pennsylvania academics released Wolf’s standards last month. It calls for a compact map that is responsive to voters, and reflects the state’s near-even split between Democrats and Republicans.

“The governor will thoroughly review the proposed maps, however on initial review, he has significant concerns about the way they divide clear communities of interest throughout the commonwealth,” Wolf spokesperson Elizabeth Rementer said in an email.

House Republicans have said they are in no rush to advance a map. One could theoretically come up for a final vote in the lower chamber this week, though a caucus spokesperson previously cautioned that the chamber would take its time to consider public input before casting another vote. 

The House and Senate are each holding their final voting sessions of 2021 this week. They currently are not due to return to Harrisburg until after the New Year.

A spokesperson for Senate Democrats has said that a committee vote on the chamber’s own, negotiated map is expected in early January. A leaked draft of the proposal, however, elicited outrage from many state and national Democrats last week.

A proposed Pa. congressional map from Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia.

Even that Senate draft made use of Holt’s equal population map, which she said no one specifically reached out and requested.

She pointed to an Oct. 28 House hearing on redistricting that emphasized the importance of equal population districts in congressional districts.

Her inspiration came from an earlier House hearing with University of Texas at Dallas political science professor Thomas Brunell. Brunell previously wrote a book disputing that competitive elections are good for democracy and has testified in favor of Republican drawn congressional maps at least a half dozen times.

In 2017, former President Donald Trump’s administration also floated Brunell for a top post in the U.S. Census Bureau, but he was not hired after pushback that the job should be reserved for a career civil servant.

Speaking to lawmakers, Brunell testified that the default in congressional redistricting is “to draw districts down to the person.”

Brunell acknowledged that keeping counties together could be a compelling counterargument. And he noted that the Census numbers are not accurate down to the person. But “we pretend that it’s accurate” for legal purposes, Brunell noted.

Therefore, drawing equal population districts is “the safest bet, because there is going to be litigation anyway. You want to remove as many possible objections to the map as possible,” Brunell said.

He cited a 2002 federal lawsuit that ordered a redraw of Pennsylvania’s then-congressional map because its 19-person population deviation was too large. The legislature’s new map brought the population deviation down to a single person.

Citing this hearing, Grove argued a no deviation map was necessary, and defended the Holt map as a non-partisan citizen submission that met that requirement.

“There’s finite reasons for small states” to draw districts that aren’t equal in population, Grove added. “Name me one big name that has population deviation.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states had population deviations greater than a one person difference between districts during the 2010’s, ranging from a two person deviation in Oregon and Georgia to 4,871 in West Virginia.

With this House hearing in mind, and despite her previous observations on population equity, Holt decided to see if she could make a map that created 17 equal population districts with minimum splits.

However, she doesn’t consider the plan her best, and was hoping the map passed into law wouldn’t require as rigid a standard.

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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.