Leaders face vote on redrawn Pennsylvania Assembly districts

Time is getting tight in the redistricting process, with about two months left before candidates begin circulating nominating petitions to get on the primary ballot.

A close-up of a Pennsylvania congressional map.

A close-up of a Pennsylvania congressional map. (Office of Gov. Tom Wolf)

The commission tasked with redrawing Pennsylvania’s Senate and House districts will meet Thursday to vote on preliminary maps, lawmakers said.

The top legislative leaders will review the maps based on census changes, with the fifth and potentially tie-breaking vote coming from Chairman Mark Nordenberg, a former University of Pittsburgh chancellor put on the panel by the Democratic majority state Supreme Court.

Nordenberg announced Monday that the Legislative Reapportionment Commission will meet on “matters related to legislative reapportionment.”

A spokeswoman for Allegheny County Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa, a commission member, said the topic will be the preliminary House and Senate maps, which if passed would trigger deadlines for public input and legal challenges.

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Costa’s Republican counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward of Westmoreland County, considers the maps “not finalized,” her spokeswoman Erica Wright said. “Since the maps are not finalized, I can’t provide comment on Sen. Ward’s position,” Wright said.

Time is getting tight in the redistricting process, with about two months left before candidates are scheduled to begin circulating nominating petitions to get on the primary ballot.

With that in mind, the House State Government Committee voted Monday with only Republican support to approve a resolution that lawmakers who are involved in drawing new congressional maps will not adjust census numbers to allocate state prison inmates to their home areas, as Nordenberg’s state legislative map-drawing body has chosen to do.

The committee also advanced a bill about new district lines, but the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Scott Conklin of Centre County, said the legislation was missing an actual map.

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Conklin made the same objection to a second bill, which Chairman Seth Grove, R-York, described as a backup that might eventually be needed under the General Assembly’s rules.

“I believe that if you’re going to vote on a map, you should actually have a map present,” Conklin said. “If not, it’s nothing more than a shell game.”

The new congressional map must account for the loss of one seat, dropping the state’s D.C. delegation from 18 to 17 starting with the 2022 races. Congressional redistricting is handled as legislation, requiring approval by both chambers and the governor.

The legislative maps cover the 203-person state House and 50-member state Senate. The primary election is currently scheduled for May 17, and it’s unclear if it will have to be delayed.

“Any decision to move the primary would have to originate in the Legislature,” said Beth Rementer, press secretary for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. “That said, the governor believes that it is critical that next year’s primary be held on new maps, and believes the primary should be moved if necessary to ensure maps can be completed with appropriate transparency and opportunity for comment.”

The Department of State has said a May 17 primary means a Jan. 24 deadline for new maps, to leave enough time so that counties can prepare the documents needed to begin circulating nominating petitions on Feb. 15.

Carol Kuniholm, who chairs the advocacy group Fair Districts PA, said it may already be too late to keep the primary date intact. If not, “something’s going to have to get shortened,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s possible to have it on May 17,” she said. “I do think it’s possible to have it by early to mid June.”

Continued delays could force lawmakers to decide whether to push back the primary, as occurred last year because of the pandemic, or consider running elections for another cycle on existing maps.

“I think at this point, all the pieces have to fall in place exactly right” to meet current deadlines, said County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania executive director Lisa Schaefer.

If legislative leaders want to prevent decisions being made by judges, “then do your jobs and produce the maps,” said David Thornburgh with the Philadelphia-based good government group the Committee of Seventy.

Thornburgh said getting the congressional maps done is more urgent than Legislative maps “because there’s no way we can reuse the current districts one more time. You can’t have 18 people running for 17 seats.”

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