Pa. creeps closer to map deadline without final lines in place

As of Wednesday, lawmakers had yet to give final approval to new congressional and legislative district maps

By: - January 19, 2022 1:50 pm

Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed congressional redistricting plan.

Uncertainty around the once-a-decade redrawing of Pennsylvania’s political topography continued this week, amid a last-minute effort from Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to offer his own compromise plan and continued court proceedings.

As of Wednesday, lawmakers had yet to give final approval to new congressional and legislative district maps. But votes on either could come as soon as next week when both the House and Senate return to Harrisburg.

However, such a timeline will likely blow past the Jan. 24 deadline the Department of State gave lawmakers over the summer for the agency to receive and implement new lines in time for candidates to get on the May 17 primary ballot. 

This outcome has looked increasingly clear for weeks, and has prompted an unprecedented number of questions for political hopefuls and campaign professionals of both parties, as they attempt to navigate the early months of a key midterm election cycle.

“There’s lots of campaigns out there circling the runway, trying to figure out where to land,” GOP operative Chris Nicholas told the Capital-Star.

Under state election law, candidates will have from Feb. 15 until March 9 to collect signatures to get on the ballot this year. Campaigns must collect these signatures from voters in the districts they seek — a task made impossible without set district lines.

Pa.’s bitter, chaotic redistricting cycle likely to reach crescendo in court

Barring a sudden compromise between Wolf and the Republican-controlled General Assembly, the congressional maps will be decided in court on Jan. 30. An appeal to the state Supreme Court could further obstruct this timeline.

This could give the Department of State up to 15 days to set the boundaries for candidates; less than they previously requested, but still some leeway before petition season commences. 

The timeline for legislative maps is even less forgiving. The 5-member legislative commission in charge of drawing them could approve the final maps at any time in the coming weeks. Once it does approve the maps, the state constitution gives aggrieved parties 30 days to file suit against the maps in the state Supreme Court.

Observers noted that challenges are often filed on the last day of that period, and that the high court will then need more time to decide the cases. This means that the legislative maps may not be finished until well into campaigns’ efforts to get on the ballot.

Shifting this timeline would require either legislative or court action, and the GOP-controlled General Assembly has shown little interest in making the move.

In particular, Republicans have blamed the slow pace of state legislative mapping on an early decision to change where people in prison are counted for purposes of redrawing the lines.

If the commission — made up of the four floor leaders in the state House and Senate, and an independent chairperson — does not get its map done on time — a near certainty given constitutional timelines for legal review — the Legislature could run on its current maps, as happened when the courts struck down the commission’s initial plan.

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

And if a compromise does not emerge on the congressional lines, House State Government Committee Chairperson Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, has pointed to an obscure 1941 law, which would force the state’s shrinking congressional delegation to run at-large in 17 statewide races rather than in individual districts. The commonwealth will drop from 18 to 17 districts this year.

Still, lawmakers weren’t throwing in the towel yet. In a party-line committee vote on Tuesday, the Senate State Government Committee sent the state House’s  previously approved congressional map to the full Senate for a vote.

The Senate committee’s chairperson, Sen. Dave Argall, R-Schuylkill, had been negotiating with his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, on a compromise map for months.

The two sides appeared close, and had indicated they’d vote on a compromise map earlier this month. However, a leaked draft of their map has seemingly put a damper on compromise.

Instead, the panel advanced the House’s proposal which was drawn by a redistricting advocate as a thought experiment and then modified by Grove, whose committee has oversight of election issues, to ease concerns from a handful of GOP lawmakers.

It could come up for a final vote as soon as next Monday, when the Senate returns to session. It is unclear if the chamber will amend the map further with a floor vote.

Another added variable is Wolf releasing his own map. On Saturday, the Democratic governor’s office put out a proposal that he argued would keep communities of interest together, represent the state’s near-even partisan divide, and abide by constitution guidelines.

Wolf calls for a compact, proportional congressional map; and he wants to see the Legislature’s notes

The governor also co-signed a map created by redistricting advocacy group Draw the Lines PA by aggregating more than 7,000 individual citizen drawn maps.

Wolf offering an actual map is a turn in negotiations. In December he said his role was to “either to sign or veto whatever the General Assembly sends me,” not haggle over individual boundaries.

In an email, Wolf spokesperson Elizabeth Rementer said their map was proposed to answer House Republicans, who passed a map “they knew did not meet the principles he outlined.”

“Because of their failure to include the governor’s public feedback on a map, he is now providing examples to show that a fair map can be drawn and to encourage the Legislature to continue negotiating a map that is fair and not gerrymandered,” Rementer added.

Argall told the Capital-Star that there are things he agreed and disagreed with in the map. In particular, he disagreed with splitting the heavily Democratic city of Pittsburgh, whose 300,000 residents can fit into a single district without division.

Street says Senate congressional draft is fair, protects minority voters; Democrats say he sold out

Overall, he hoped Wolf’s proposal could jump start negotiations with Street, and that they could get a map to Wolf’s desk soon.

“It’s fair to say everything is still on the table,” Argall said.

Wolf producing his own map, observers in both parties noted, would also provide a legal fig leaf in the coming legal dispute, showing that he attempted to engage with the Legislature rather than write off compromise.

Some Democrats also noted their frustration with the map, arguing that Wolf should have offered a more aggressive proposal to help the state’s incumbent lawmakers keep their seats in a midterm election that will likely be in Republicans favor.

If Wolf and the Legislature cannot reach an agreement — or if they pass the House map and set it up for a certain veto — drawing the congressional map will fall to the state courts.

In an order Friday, Commonwealth Court judge Patricia McCullough allowed for House and Senate Republicans and Democrats, Wolf, and a group of GOP petitioners, including sitting U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-14th District, and two former GOP congressmen, to intervene in the suit.

Each party could submit two maps, call an expert to testify in a court hearing, and respond to the other parties’ maps.

Meanwhile, four groups of citizen plaintiffs were not allowed to intervene. The groups may still submit one map to the court for consideration as well as written briefs, but otherwise cannot participate in the coming court hearings.

The court will hear arguments from the parties on Jan. 27 and 28. If Wolf has not signed a map by Jan. 30, the Commonwealth Court will pick a map from among those submitted to the court.

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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.