The Southern Berks News
Redistricting comes amid political storm
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.