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

By: - March 14, 2021 6:30 am

Pennsylvania’s current congressional map, as redrawn by the state Supreme Court in 2018.

It’s a year ending in one, so politicians across America are once again busting out their sharpies and spreadsheets to divide up voters in the once-a-decade redrawing of Pennsylvania’s congressional and legislative boundaries.

Redistricting and its cousin, gerrymandering, are more common terms to hear in recent years. But don’t be worried if you haven’t heard of them before.

Understand them, and you will better understand the next decade of American, and Pennsylvania, politics. Here’s our best shot at telling you what you need to know.

So, what is redistricting?

Redistricting happens every ten years, after the U.S. Census. The census tells us how much the populations have grown, and where those people are. 

Then, the boundaries of legislators’ electoral districts, whether you are a congressperson, a state representative, or a city councilor, are redrawn to match the new data —changing who they represent and who who votes for them.

How the 2020 census could impact Pa.’s redistricting efforts

In total, Pennsylvania’s lawmakers will be drawing three maps with a cumulative 270 districts — 17 congressional districts, 50 state senate districts, and 203 state house districts. 

Congressional districts need to be exactly equal in population — likely around 750,000 each. State districts have more leeway to be off the mark — about 63,000 for a House district and 256,000 for a Senate district.

And these maps aren’t just new lines on a map. Because they dictate elected officials’ voters, the new lines will influence who wins legislative and congressional elections — and power.

“We had an election that took place recently that determined the power for the next two years,” said Michael Li, a counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Redistricting will determine who holds power for the next ten years.”

What about gerrymandering?

Since these maps are so important, it didn’t take long for some to find a way to rig them. This is known as gerrymandering, named for a 19th century Massachusetts governor, Eldredge Gerry.

It’s usually done by splitting up concentrations of Democratic or Republican voters among many districts or packing them tightly together. Either way, it dilutes those voters’ power — and often results in some strange looking districts. 

There are some caveats. Lawmakers can’t cherry pick residents based on their race, under federal civil rights laws. But federal law doesn’t say anything about dividing people up by their party registration.

In the place of federal action on the topic, state courts have intervened. For example, the state Supreme Court tossed out a seven-year-old congressional map in 2018 as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander under the Pennsylvania constitution.

Still, citizens have to be mindful of gerrymandering in states where lawmakers control how maps are drawn — such as in Pennsylvania.

So what does control by politicians look like?

Let’s start with Congress.

The state’s congressional districts must be approved in legislation. That means the map requires a majority vote in both chambers of the Republican-controlled General Assembly, as well as Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s signature.

Like many bills, the congressional map comes together quickly — and quietly. The 2011 map was drawn in secret, before racing through the Republican-controlled General Assembly (with some Democratic help) to then-GOP Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk in 12 days, start to finish.

That map was considered one of the country’s best (or worst) gerrymanders. The state Supreme Court’s liberal majority tossed that map seven years later as unconstitutionally partisan, and redrew the districts from scratch. Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation went from a 13-5 Republican advantage to evenly split 9-9 between the parties.

Since the eventual map will require the approval of Republicans and Democrats, observers feel the newest map could be a fair compromise, at least compared to last time.

“Wolf’s presence is a complete game changer for Democrats,” said Mike Manzo, a former top state House Democratic aide, told the Capital-Star.  “[U.S. House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi probably goes to sleep soundly every night.” 

Okay, cool, what about-

Wait wait wait! There’s one wild card: Pennsylvania is set to lose one of its congressional districts. 

Census 2020: Pa. is expected to lose a seat in Congress. Here’s why that’s a huge deal

As the U.S.’s population grows, the number of total districts does not increase in the U.S. House of Representatives. In fact, it is stuck, by a nearly century-old law, at 435 members. (If you think that’s silly, that’s a different debate.)

Instead, those 435 seats are distributed among the states by a formula adopted in 1941 and administered by the Census Bureau. Basically, states that have grown the most gain seats, and states that grow slowly— or even lost population — lose seats.

Pennsylvania is in the latter camp this time, as it has been for decades. The commonwealth has 18 congressional districts right now, but will have 17 for the next decade, according to most estimates.

It’s up to Wolf and lawmakers to decide which seat to remove, and that’ll likely be the biggest sticking point, Manzo said.

If no one retires, two incumbents could be drawn into the same district, forcing them to run against each other in a primary or general election.

Okay, NOW, what about the state Legislature?

For the state legislative maps, the maps are created by a five-person commission, known as the Legislative Reapportionment Commission

Designed by the state constitution, the commission is made up of the floor leaders of the Republican and Democratic caucus in both the House and Senate.

Those four then must pick a fifth, independent person to chair the commission and break ties. 

It can be anyone not holding public office. However, the leaders never agree on that fifth. Absent an agreement, the state Supreme Court picks the chair. They usually go with a retired judge to round out the panel.

As mentioned earlier, the Supreme Court currently has a liberal majority, elected as Democrats. That means the party, for the first time in decades, will hold the tiebreaker in how the state House and state Senate districts are drawn.

But Manzo argued that judges, steeped in the impartial atmosphere of the courtroom, will still assure fairness.

“There’s not any judge who’s going to walk into that role and say ‘Man, I’m stacking the deck for Democrats,’” he said.

The five members then meet and develop the state legislative maps. The commission jointly approves the new House and Senate map in a single vote. Those who wish to challenge the map in court have 30 days to file a lawsuit.

If the commission can’t agree on a map, the task falls to the Supreme Court.

That all sounds good?

Yes and no. Pennsylvania is one of 14 states to use a commission for its legislative maps. But it’s a commission of state elected officials with a vested interest in the results of the map, with few transparency measures to boot, leading advocates to see much room for improvement.

The 2011 commission met in public nine times, including meetings in Pittsburgh, Allentown and Harrisburg, to discuss the first set of House and Senate maps and to take public testimony.

But most of the negotiations were in private, according to one source familiar with the process, including closed door meetings between top aides and the private exchange of maps between the legislative leaders and the chair before the public votes.

And while meetings of the commission had to be released ahead of time, the maps that are voted on weren’t typically released before the meeting, the source added.

That first map would eventually be tossed out by the state Supreme Court’s then-conservative majority, and would take another five months to approve a new map.

To redistricting reformers, such as Fair Districts PA Executive Director Carol Kuniholm, last time is proof that just the promise of judicial impartiality isn’t enough to ensure an even playing field.

“The judge is not the one drawing the maps, the judge is one giving one party permission to draw the maps that they prefer,” Kuniholm said.

Can we change anything?

It’s too late to completely change the legislative process now — it’s laid out in the state constitution — and likely too late to create a commission to draw the congressional lines.

But Kuniholm is arguing for legislation to expand transparency and limit how much new districts can split up counties.

She also wants an improved website for the commission, that will include the data legislative mappers used to draw their districts, and allow citizens to submit their own maps for consideration.

“The website was not great in 2011, and it needs to be more than what it was,” Kuniholm told the Capital-Star.

She pointed to Oklahoma, where legislative leaders have already established a website that allows for state residents to submit their own maps with Dave’s Redistricting App, a website that allows users to redraw all 50 states’ congressional and legislative districts.

Spokespeople for three of the four caucuses — House Republicans, and Senate and House Democrats, said that the commission hadn’t been formed yet.

“Nothing else really can happen before that takes place,” House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman said.

 A Senate Republican spokesperson did not reply to a request for comment.

What’s next?

There’s at least one or two staff in each caucus — that’s the House and Senate Republicans and Democrats — whose job it is to draw maps, said two Capitol sources who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive internal process. 

So, potentially, eight public employees will be charged with sitting down at a computer, firing up software, and drawing draft districts to meet the demands of the legislative leaders. The caucuses also might hire outside contractors to help with the job.

Those mappers will also need the new Census data. Normally, they’d have it by now, but the data is delayed this year. 

That’s due to President Joe Biden’s decision to rollback a policy by former President Donald Trump to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census.

Once they have the data — by Sept. 30, according to the Census Bureau — they can start drafting in earnest.

However, you don’t need to be a shadowy partisan consultant or cloistered public employee to draw your own maps, thanks to new software.

There’s the aforementioned Dave’s Redistricting App. The advocacy group Draw The Lines PA might even give you a cash prize if you submit a map to them using another program, DistrictBuilder.

So while legislators wait for new data and negotiate amongst themselves, there’s one thing you can do: draw away.

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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.