We tried drawing our own Pa. congressional maps. Here’s what we came up with

By: - April 18, 2021 6:30 am

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

With the Keystone State deep in the throes of the decennial redrawing of its legislative and congressional maps, the staff of the Capital-Star decided to try its hand at this incredibly important exercise in representative democracy.

Our results are below. We’d invite you to submit your own maps to us as well. Tag us on Twitter @PennCapitalStar, and we’ll share them with our readers.

A few notes: These maps aren’t a recommendation for policymakers. They do not represent the official position of the Capital-Star, its staff, or its management. At a time when civic participation is critical, we just thought it would be a good idea (and maybe even fun) to try the mapmaking process for ourselves and see what we came up with.

Staff Reporter Stephen Caruso:

See a full version here.

Fun fact: At the end of a long day of chasing lawmakers for comment and writing up stories on Pennsylvania policy, I love nothing more than to come home, sit down and play with Dave’s Redistricting App, or DRA for short.

I exaggerate a little, but playing with the app has given me time to think a bit about what makes a good map. And I must confess to a bias to maps that create competitive districts.

There’s precedent for this in redistricting. Arizona’s independent commission allows the cartographers to use competitiveness as a criteria. 

In Pennsylvania, making every district competitive requires making long snakes that link Pittsburgh to Punxsutawney, or Philadelphia to New Philadelphia.

While fun, I don’t have the patience to draw one myself. Also, they are silly. So, I opted instead for a proposal that tries to draw compact districts representing communities of interest with few county splits. And when I was forced to decide, it edges towards making districts competitive. 

(Another note before we dig in: When I first finished my map, the populations were closer to even. DRA must have updated its data in between when I finished and now, because the populations weren’t this off!)

All told, DRA lists six of 17 districts as divided by between 1 to 6 percentage points of party performance — the 1st, 6th, 7th, 8th, 10th and 16th districts. That should result in some tough elections, and at least keep the state’s consultant class well fed. Otherwise, there are five relatively safe Democratic seats and six relatively safe Republican seats.

As a Harrisburg resident, I felt the current 10th District represented our growing chunk of Pennsylvania well, so I stuck with its basic shape. 

In the northeast, I did a Twitter survey a few weeks back on what to do with Carbon County, as some of you might have seen. Here’s the result of your input.

I thought about making a district linking Chester County and Lancaster County. But it gets messy real quick to find a place to put the rest of the latter, and a quick chat with a former Lancaster resident disabused me of this idea. 

So, I kept the 6th District roughly as is, though putting Reading in with Chester County doesn’t make perfect sense to me. Blame the state Supreme Court.

Philadelphia was sliced up in a new way, sticking north and south Philly together so all the gentrifiers and angry old Italians can wage war with each other. That also forces parts of West Philly to pair with Delaware County.

I also did one other thing I’ll admit to being odd — having the Bucks County-based 1st District stretch into the Lehigh Valley. Just figured I’d try something different!

And I must confess my trepidation at having a district stretch from the Susquehanna River to Ohiopyle, but there aren’t a lot of options, and Pennsylvania’s current map allows an Altoona doctor to represent Gettysburg. So, it’ll do.

Finally, some brief Googling leads me to think this map sets up at least three incumbent-on- incumbent primaries. 

While to this reporter, that sounds like a fun, chaotic outcome, it also means this map has a zero percent chance of being adopted. Still, hope yinz enjoyed.

Staff Reporter Elizabeth Hardison:

See a full version here.

When the members of Pennsylvania’s newly appointed redistricting commission invite me to chair their panel, I will have to respectfully decline. 

I’m not wary of math or reluctant to spend my days locked in meeting rooms with politicians (I do that often enough anyway.) Instead, I’m what we might call spatially challenged. If you tell me to go left, there’s a good chance I’ll turn right. An easy way to make me cry is to ask me to pack a weekend’s worth of camping gear into the too-small trunk of a car. I could not accurately guess the dimensions of my home office, or the length of a school bus, if my life depended on it. 

It turns out that dividing 13 million people into 17 roughly proportionate, contiguous blocks requires some spatial intelligence! That’s especially true if you want to hew to at least some geographic boundaries, or observe more nebulous cultural ones. My revelation may come as no surprise to folks who draw political districts as a hobby (I’m told they exist.) But I didn’t fully appreciate it until I tried my hand at mapmaking on a slow Friday afternoon. My unsuitability for the task at hand became quickly and abundantly clear.

My vague goal for my map was to keep districts more or less regularly shaped, avoiding the gerrymandered tendrils that have won Pennsylvania’s old Congressional maps infamy. I also wanted districts to respect regional identities. Those judgements are subjective, of course – western Pennsylvanians may balk at the way I divided their counties, and many of my groupings fell back on the sometimes-illusory urban/rural divide. But as a city dweller, I wanted to avoid “cracking” small cities or packing them into rural districts where their voting power is diluted. That’s sometimes impossible (see: Altoona and Erie.) But I did try to preserve urban cores in south-central Pennsylvania, including my own Harrisburg. 

The entire map-making process took about three hours. People who are old hands can probably move faster – I had to learn how to use the software. I felt vaguely agitated the whole time, eager to get it over with, and was happy when I completed my cartographic massacre of the Philadelphia suburbs and could lay down my pen. My grievances aside: give this a try if you haven’t already! You may learn something about the democratic process – and even yourself – in the process.

Associate Editor Cassie Miller:

See a full version here.

With Pennsylvania slated to lose a congressional district following the census count, my main consideration for my map was finding a way to redistribute people from 18 districts to 17 in a way that gave all 12.8 million constituents an equal chance to be heard by their congressional representatives and gave each of the representatives a manageable constituency. 

That turned out to be harder than anticipated, as Pennsylvania’s population is not remotely close to being evenly distributed across the formerly 18 districts, with large concentrations of people in Allegheny, Philadelphia and Montgomery counties. 

It was also difficult due to the volume of constituents each district would now have with the elimination of the 18th congressional district. 

Under an 18-district map, Pennsylvania’s representative to constituents ratio was approximately 1:700,000 per district. Under the 17-district map, the ratio increased in each of the districts by more than 50,000 constituents.

Another consideration I wanted to factor into my proposed map was regional groupings. I tried over the course of several attempts to group regionally similar areas together, however that was not always possible given my plan to have each district equal in population. 

After a handful of attempts to redistribute approximately 752,000 constituents across each of the 17 districts a few parts of the state stood out as problematic districts. 

Allegheny County, with more than 1 million people, had to be split up, occupying my proposed 12th and a small part of my 17th districts. 

The districts of the southeastern part of the state were also complicated, leading to a three-way split in Chester County near the Montgomery County border. 

Another area to point out is the 10th, 11th and 13th districts, which on my proposed map make up York, Dauphin, part of Cumberland and Lancaster counties. 

I reworked this area several times to try and fit York and Lancaster counties together since they are regionally similar, but their large populations required they be split, with the 10th district stepping in to handle the split. 

The concentration of Pennsylvania’s population at the far ends of the state (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) with small pockets of larger populations in Scranton, the Lehigh Valley, Lancaster and York, make it difficult to distribute population evenly among the districts. 

Despite the difficulty, I believe it can be done by grouping regionally similar areas together based on census data, but splitting is necessary. 

Editor John L. Micek:

]See a full version here.

Initially, my goal was to divide the state up into 17 squares, each with the requisite 742,000-ish people. This sounded great in theory — in practice, it was far more difficult. So I’ll doff my cap to the brave folks charged with slicing and dicing our fair Commonwealth into congressional districts that fairly represent the interests and concerns of the nearly 13 million souls who call it home.

My overriding priority was to honor the three C’s of redistricting by keeping districts compact and contiguous and by making sure I didn’t unnecessarily butcher communities of interest. In large part, I think I was successful. Though I will admit there were some parts of the state (Yes, I’m looking at you Allegheny County and the Philadelphia suburbs, where this was devilishly complicated). And I really wanted to fold Cumberland County and Dauphin County into a single congressional seat — the Holy Grail of my dear friend Charlie Thompson at PennLive/The Patriot-News. But this, too, proved elusive. Because, well, math is hard.

I think I went through five drafts over the course of several days before I finally came up with a map that A: Felt like it could pass muster with the bare minimum of litigation and B: Didn’t make me want to throw my laptop out the window.

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