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

Wolf, legislative Republicans and their Democratic counterparts have all asked the state Commonwealth Court to intervene in a redistricting case brought by a national Democratic redistricting group

By: - January 12, 2022 4:37 pm

The Capitol building in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Squabbling politicians. Competing hearings. Looming deadlines. Litigation, with more on the horizon. And legislative action threatening to rejigger the whole process.

Pennsylvania’s 2021 redistricting cycle has been convoluted and hard to follow. And now that it has bled into 2022, it’s likely that only further court action will clean up the mess.

Each decade, all 50 states must redraw their congressional and legislative districts to match shifting demographics. This year, all also have faced the same census data  delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a shift between the Trump and Biden administrations on whether or not to count undocumented immigrants.

But as of this week, 26 states already have passed new congressional maps, according to data journalism website FiveThirtyEight, while Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf have yet to implement new lines.

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

To be sure, they are giving it a go. New state House and Senate maps could be approved as soon as next week by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission under constitutionally required deadlines.

The commission is made up of the four legislative leaders in the state House and Senate,  and the court-appointed chairperson Mark Nordenberg. Wolf plays no part in this process.

But passing a congressional map, an entirely separate process, has proven even trickier. That’s because it, has no legal guide rails whatsoever, noted David Thornburgh, executive director of redistricting advocacy group Draw the Lines PA.

Unlike the legislative remap, the state House and Senate vote on the congressional map and send it to Wolf for his approval or veto

“We knew there would be a requirement for a draft [legislative] map,” Thornburgh said. In contrast, “the Congressional process has been like playground football — there’s no game plan, there’s just ‘go long, I’ll hit you.’”

The Pennsylvania House passed its proposed congressional map on Wednesday afternoon along near party lines, sending it to the state Senate. 

The updated Pa. House congressional map

The lower chamber’s map is based on a map from redistricting advocate Amanda Holt, who’s also a former Republican county commissioner in Lehigh County. 

“Everyone has their own concepts of ‘fairness,’ which is clearly different depending on perspective and individual views,” House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said in a statement Wednesday. “What is most important is that we follow the standards set forth in the Constitution, which this map does.”

House State Government Committee Chairperson Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, picked the proposal because it had 17 districts that were exactly equal in their population. Pennsylvania will drop from 18 to 17 congressional districts in the decennial remapping.

During floor debate on Wednesday, Grove also highlighted that the map reduces splits compared to the current court-drawn congressional map, and was rated highly competitive — although with a Republican advantage — by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

Grove’s map is not without its critics, though. For one, Holt has doubted Grove’s strenuous commitment to population equity. Republicans on the committee also withheld their vote until Grove offered edits to unite their home counties. And regardless of the GOP’s transparency promises and 13 public hearings, House Democrats say they were kept out of the process entirely.

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

“The only thing Republicans and Democrats asked this year is ‘don’t play games, don’t screw it up so it goes the court.’” the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Scott Conklin of Centre County, told the Capital-Star. “We have not listened to what every person at every stop asked us to do.”

Meanwhile, Wolf, after releasing standards for a map in November, has indicated he won’t negotiate a final product, and instead expects whatever is sent to him to match his criteria. 

In a Dec. 28 letter to the Legislature, Wolf also outlined his opposition to Grove’s proposal.

After facing early Republican opposition to Holt’s map, Grove “quickly abandoned the pretext of a citizen-selected map and redrew lines in ways that completely undermine” the citizen map, Wolf argued. “The result is a highly skewed map.”

Republicans have countered that Wolf has not attempted to negotiate the map, instead trusting that the liberal majority on the state Supreme Court will give Democrats a more favorable redraw.

“Wolf is creating a totally unnecessary constitutional crisis,” Republican operative Mark Harris said on social media last month.

Either way, Wolf, legislative Republicans and their Democratic counterparts have all asked the state Commonwealth Court to intervene in a redistricting case brought by a national Democratic redistricting group.

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

Filed in December, the case asks for judges to draw the congressional maps, due to encroaching deadlines and dwindling prospects of compromise. Wolf and the legislative leaders all hope to submit a potential map for the court to implement.

Since summer 2021, the Department of State, which oversees elections statewide, has said it  needs finished maps by Jan. 24 to allow for candidates to get on the ballot for the May 2022 primary election.

The state Commonwealth Court has said it will pick a map on Jan. 30 from submitted proposals if Wolf does not sign a map into law.

Since the case was filed, the odds of an agreement have seemed even slimmer to advocates such as Fair Districts PA executive director Carol Kuniholm.

“It’s a fail-fail in every direction,” Kuniholm told the Capital-Star, “and the legislative leaders are responsible.”

She sees two possibilities in the next few weeks for the congressional maps. One is that there is a map ready to go that has been negotiated in secret that will, very quickly and without review, be sent to Wolf. 

The other is that they pass a map Wolf “certainly will veto,” or pass no map at all, at which point Republicans will accuse the court and Wolf of overstepping.

“I don’t see any way it won’t go to court,” Kuniholm continued. “Was that the original intent? It seems the likely intent, to stoke anger at the court. There’s no reason [the Legislature] shouldn’t have had a map before Thanksgiving.”

The House congressional map now heads to the Senate. Senate State Government Committee Chairperson. Dave Argall, R-Schuylkill, told the Capital-Star that he hadn’t decided whether to hold a vote on the House map. 

His and Grove’s staff were talking, Argall said, and negotiations with his Democratic counterpart Philadelphia Sen. Sharif Street are ongoing.

Despite the looming Commonwealth Court deadline, Argall added he wasn’t ready to give up on a legislative compromise, and still wasn’t interested in moving the primary.

“If Senator Street and I can come to an agreement — and I believe we are close — and if a bill can pass with a significant bipartisan majority, and if we can do that as well in the House, then perhaps the governor will finally sign a bill rather than veto it.”

But such a future calls for a lot of ifs — which Argall acknowledged.

“I chose my words very carefully,” he said.

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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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