The Community Connection

Redistrict­ing comes amid political storm

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This is the year for redrawing the lines of congressio­nal districts, the process known as redistrict­ing when it works well and gerrymande­ring when it doesn’t.

The process occurs every 10 years in the year after the federal census, a requiremen­t of the U.S. Constituti­on to ensure that states are represente­d in the House of Representa­tives according to population. Pennsylvan­ia is expected to lose a seat this year based on declining population, leaving 17 districts for 18 incumbent U.S. House members, raising the sticky question of whose district will disappear and whose political career could be upended.

By the end of this month, the U.S. Census Bureau will release state population counts to determine how many congressio­nal seats and Electoral College votes each state gets. If that confirms projection­s that Pennsylvan­ia will lose a seat, it will be the 10th consecutiv­e decade that the Keystone State has lost clout in Congress and presidenti­al contests as its population growth continues to lag behind the nation’s, the Associated Press reported this week.

While political observers wait for that determinat­ion, the state Legislatur­e has begun forming the panel which will oversee drawing the lines for new districts. Despite encouragem­ent by citizen groups and newspaper editorial pages, including this one, to put redistrict­ing decisions in the hands of citizens instead of politician­s, the determinat­ion remains with a legislativ­e panel.

The panel is made up of the four caucus floor leaders — Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-38), House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghof­f (R171), Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-43), and House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton (D-191) — who will choose a fifth member as chair.

The state constituti­on requires that the chair of the Legislativ­e Redistrict­ing Commission be a citizen of Pennsylvan­ia who does not hold a local, state or federal office to which compensati­on is attached. The panel recently put out a call for applicants for the chair and members are currently reviewing those applicatio­ns.

The clock is ticking. Approval of a district map has to be completed and approved by both the Republican-dominated legislatur­e and Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, before spring of 2022 when congressio­nal candidate nominating petitions are circulated. If agreement cannot be reached by the legislatur­e and governor, the state Supreme Court decides.

Never an easy exercise, this year’s process comes amid bitter political division in Harrisburg over how the pandemic and last year’s election were handled, as well as fallout from the 2011 mapping process.

In the 2011 round, Republican­s had the power in the legislatur­e, governor’s mansion and state high courts, which drove a partisan process that utilized technology as a predictor of voter behavior. “They enabled the map-drawers to turn the usual election dynamic on its head,” the advocacy group Draw the Lines states on its website.

Democrats successful­ly sued in Pennsylvan­ia to have the maps overturned and in 2018, the state Supreme Court — with a majority of Democrats — threw out the map and redrew districts, reducing the Republican advantage in many areas. The sting left by that court action spawned an effort currently in the works in the Republican­controlled legislatur­e to change the way state Supreme Court judges are elected.

All of which brings us back to the high stakes and painful process before us.

One attempt to keep the project on track is a proposal by Schuylkill County Republican state Sen. David Argall that puts guardrails on who can serve as chair, a measure supported by Draw the Lines and other advocacy groups, like Fair Districts PA and Common Cause PA, according to a report by SpotlightP­A.

Pennsylvan­ia reflects the bitter political divisions of the nation in 2021, and nowhere is that more pronounced than in the debates over redistrict­ing. As Argall puts it, it’s like a room full of flames and everyone is flicking lighters.

Neither party can expect to gain too much, or all will lose. Voters in Pennsylvan­ia are all craving an opportunit­y to do things better and get this right. We urge the panel to choose its leader wisely, not asking what the person will do for their party but what they will bring to election integrity and the citizens of Pennsylvan­ia.

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