Pa. lawmakers say they have time to draw maps; but state courts, Wolf admin. disagree

Pennsylvania lost one congressional seat in the 2020 census, the lawsuits argue, making a timely new map even more critical. The state is going from 18 to 17 congressional seats

By: - December 22, 2021 4:14 pm

The updated Pa. House congressional map

*This breaking story will be updated

Pennsylvania’s courts appear poised to intervene in the state’s contested redistricting process unless the Republican-controlled General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf can come to some agreement in the next six weeks.

In an order this week, the state’s Commonwealth Court said that judges would pick a new congressional map if the Legislature does not pass, and Wolf does not sign one into law, by Jan. 30.

The case is a consolidation of two suits brought by Pennsylvania citizens asking for the courts to redraw the state’s congressional lines. One was brought by a national redistricting group aligned with the Democratic Party.

Pennsylvania lost one congressional seat in the 2020 census, the lawsuits argue, making a timely new map even more critical. The state is going from 18 to 17 congressional seats.

Rather than draw their own map, the court will pick a map from submissions it receives from the parties in the lawsuit. Those who wish to intervene have until Dec. 31 to do so.

The suit could also be moved from Commonwealth Court to the state Supreme Court. The National Redistricting Action Fund, a dark money group aligned with the Democratic Party, asked for the high court to immediately take up the case this week, avoiding the lower courts.

National Democrats file new suit asking state courts to draw Pa. congressional map

An earlier suit asking for such a redraw was dismissed by the appellate court this fall. But the action fund refiled its suit last week, claiming that the lack of legislative consensus in December showed that Wolf and the Legislature were at an impasse.

“Given the little time remaining before statutory filing deadlines,” the group’s request states, “it is incumbent upon this Court to act swiftly and exercise its extraordinary jurisdiction to expeditiously adopt a constitutional and lawful congressional plan under which the Commonwealth may proceed with its elections.”

Since summer, the Department of State has said lawmakers have until Jan. 24, 2022 to redraw the state’s congressional map and 253 legislative districts to allow for an on-time May 2022 primary.

But delays in Census data prompted by  the COVID-19 pandemic, and debates over how to count undocumented immigrants, have given cartographers less time than usual to draw the maps. The Legislature did not receive completed data until August.

The timeline for legislative maps is made even more complicated because the state constitution allows citizens 30 days to review the preliminary map and submit changes, and another 30 days to challenge the lines in court. 

Panel approves new Pa. legislative maps that leaves incumbents in the lurch

The preliminary legislative map was approved Dec. 16, or just 39 days before the Department of State deadline.

In a Tuesday letter to the Legislative Reapportionment Commission , acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid, who oversees election administration in Pennsylvania, told the commission, made up of legislative leaders, that they may need to move back the primary date to ensure new maps are in place for the 2022 election. 

The 5-member panel, made up of legislative leaders and an independent chairperson, is in charge of drawing maps for the General Assembly. 

“The purpose of this letter is not to find fault with the work of the [commission], but rather to identify the problems we will face if no measures are undertaken by either the Legislature or the Supreme Court to mitigate these very serious risks to administration of the upcoming election cycle,” DeGraffenreid wrote.

A spokesperson for the Department of State said the deadline issues described in the letter also applied to the congressional maps, but otherwise declined to comment on pending litigation.

Debates over the maps are highly contentious, as the outcome will have a broad impact on the partisan balance of power in Congress and in the state Legislature.

Earlier in the year, state Republicans had suggested they might move the primary date. But now, as time ticks away, two key GOP committee chairs have said that such a move is off the table.

“We aren’t moving the primary,” House State Government Committee Chairperson Seth Grove, R-York, tweeted. “Remedies are already provided for.”

Federal law, Grove suggested, would allow the state’s 17 congressional representatives to run at-large in statewide elections without a map. And courts previously have allowed state legislators to run on old lines, including in the 2012 cycle.

Both Grove and his Senate counterpart, State Government Committee Chairperson Dave Argall, R-Schuylkill, have expressed their hopes to find a compromise with Wolf.

Argall had previously told the Capital-Star that he didn’t think there was an “appetite” to move the primary among his colleagues.

He added Wednesday that the Legislature has time to reach a bipartisan agreement on the congressional maps.

“There is no need to rush to the courts at this time,” Argall told the Capital-Star

But Wolf has downplayed his role in the process, telling reporters this week that “when someone calls and says ‘let’s talk about the map’, I’m not talking.” 

“I sent my principles. Here are the principles I think ought to be used”, Wolf added, according to ABC-27 in Harrisburg.

Wolf previously convened a commission of academics, who advised him to only accept a map with limited splits, that reflected the state’s partisan balance and would be responsive to voters.

But Wolf’s remarks did not land well with Republicans.

Pa. House tweaks congressional map before Christmas, hopes for fresh tidings from Wolf

“I don’t know what the point of having a governor is you’re not going to negotiate,” Grove told the Capital-Star.

The House advanced a map out of committee last week, while the Senate has been in bipartisan negotiations to find a compromise. Neither chamber expected a final vote until January.

The House has seven scheduled voting session days for January, the Senate six.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is the Capital-Star's House reporter. He previously covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter. You can reach him at 845-891-4306.

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