The Pennsylvania House has taken its first formal vote on a proposed congressional map, moving a newly-drawn draft lawmakers intend to use as a starting point in upcoming negotiations with the Senate and Gov. Tom Wolf.
The map is based on a submission from prominent citizen mapper Amanda Holt. House GOP leaders tweaked the proposal shortly before their formal Wednesday vote in response to criticism from several of their own members, who were unhappy the original proposal split their counties.
Members of the public didn’t get the granular data needed to analyze the map in detail until after lawmakers had already voted on it.
The draft is similar to Holt’s original proposal. One key difference is that it creates more compact districts, but does so by splitting a few more counties and precincts than Holt’s map.
Also like Holt’s map, it would benefit Republicans more than the commonwealth’s current, court-drawn map does.
Here’s WHYY News’ analysis of the way the map, if enacted, would shape Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation for the next decade.
The technical requirements
Thanks to vague laws on both the state and federal levels, Pennsylvania officials have a lot of latitude when deciding how to draw districts.
The only official criteria for congressional maps, which are drawn by the legislature and approved by the governor as simple legislation, is that they must be of about equal size and can’t dilute voters’ voices on the basis of race. A 2018 state Supreme Court decision also held that congressional districts should be contiguous — i.e. a district must be a single, unbroken shape — and compact, and they shouldn’t divide municipalities and wards unless absolutely necessary.
Thanks to recent population shifts, Pennsylvania’s new congressional map must also have one fewer district than the current map.
All 17 of the districts drawn in the House’s new proposal are contiguous, and lawmakers also stuck strictly to population requirements. Based on 2020 census numbers, each of the 17 proposed districts has the exact same number of people in it.
The map is also relatively compact, meaning the districts don’t stretch out or curl in on themselves — telltale signs of partisan gerrymandering. Dave’s Redistricting App, a nonpartisan website that produces analyses of political map data, rated the proposal as “OK” — slightly worse than the commonwealth’s current congressional map, and slightly better than Holt’s original proposal.
It does divide more counties than Holt’s map did: 15 counties are split 18 times under the new proposal, and nine voting precincts are split, as opposed to 14 counties split 16 times under Holt’s proposal, with no precincts split.
County splits can be one of the most controversial parts of the mapping process, because voters — and the lawmakers who represent them — tend to dislike having multiple voting districts within a single county. That’s the main reason Republicans adjusted Holt’s map in the first place: Three Republicans on the House State Government Committee, through which the map had to pass, had their counties split.
The new proposal was perhaps most tepidly received in Dauphin County, which was divided into three different districts.
Ahead of Wednesday’s committee vote, Rep. Andrew Lewis (R-Dauphin) said he would vote for the new plan to keep the redistricting process moving, but that he would prefer the Harrisburg-Carlisle metro area to be included in a single district because is “has very similar geographic interests from an economic standpoint, from a cultural standpoint, and these are very important to us in this area.”
Pennsylvania has a long history of partisan maps. After a GOP-dominated redraw in 2011, Republicans went on to win 13 of the commonwealth’s 18 congressional seats in the subsequent midterm election, despite only getting 49% of that year’s vote.
That is why the state Supreme Court, in 2018, deemed that map to be an unconstitutional gerrymander and commissioned a new one.
The court’s map, which was in use for the 2018 midterms that saw Democrats take an equal share of the commonwealth’s congressional seats, scores well on measures of partisan fairness.
One of those measures is proportionality — whether the representatives likely to be elected under a given map would reflect the state’s proportion of Republicans to Democrats. Dave’s Redistricting App gives the 2018 map a “very good” ranking on that measure.
The House’s new map, meanwhile, is labeled “anti-majoritarian” in Dave’s Redistricting App, because “even though they will probably receive roughly 52.46% of the total votes, Democrats will likely only win 47.85% of the seats.”
The map would create districts with similar partisan tendencies to Holt’s original map. Seven districts would be safe for Republicans and five would be safe for Democrats. Of the five swing districts remaining, four would favor Democrats — though one, the 17th, is so competitive that there’s little partisan advantage either way — and one would favor Republicans.
That’s slightly better for Democrats than Holt’s first proposal, which would have created two swing districts that favored Republicans.
The new House map also scores slightly higher on measures of competitiveness — i.e. how many districts could swing either left or right — than both the Holt map and the current congressional map.
During discussion of the new proposal, Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), who chairs the House State Government Committee and has been leading the chamber’s redistricting effort, said repeatedly that he and other GOP leaders hadn’t considered partisanship when drawing their map.
“The Supreme Court was clear,” he said. “We got a process in place to move away from that partisan gerrymandering.”
He also rejected competitiveness as a legitimate measure of a map’s effectiveness.
“When you talk about competitiveness of districts, you’re talking about partisanship,” he said. “That is a partisan analysis … We’re looking at data, we’re looking at compactness, we’re looking at communities of interest, we’re looking at public input. That’s the process we laid out.”
How much public comment is enough?
Public input, and how it is used, has been one of the thorniest parts of this year’s redistricting process. Democrats have raised concerns that they’re not getting enough information on how GOP leaders are picking maps, like Holt’s.
“We spent a summer saying, ‘Hey, we’re listening,’” said Rep. Scott Conklin (D-Centre), the ranking Democrat on the House State Government Committee, of the listening sessions the committee held from July to October. “Then you found one person you wanted to listen to?”
House GOP Spokesman Jason Gottesman says Republicans chose Holt’s map as a model because it had prioritized making districts exactly equal in population and minimizing precinct splits, which they saw as a neutral starting point. Republicans didn’t say who had been involved with choosing that map.
Rep. Ryan Mackenzie (R-Lehigh) was the only Republican on the House State Government Committee to vote against the proposed map. His concern, he said, was somewhat similar to Conklin’s: He didn’t feel lawmakers had allowed enough time for public comment.
“At the end of the day, you might feel like this is the best product you can get through the legislative process, and it may satisfy a lot of people’s concerns that have been raised,” he said. “I don’t know that because we haven’t finished that public comment process.”
Once the bill leaves the committee, Mackenzie noted, the committee members who are collecting public comment no longer have the ability to decide whether to listen to them. GOP leaders can, if they choose, pass the map through the entire House as-is.
A spokesperson for Gov. Wolf also says he’s concerned the map “divides clear and cohesive communities of interest.”
“The governor had significant concerns about the way the initial map proposed by Amanda Holt split communities of interest across the state,” Wolf’s press secretary, Elizabeth Rementer, said in a statement. “The new map, which the Republicans are moving forward with after making it public yesterday, simply divides new counties in place of the old ones.”
Grove says he’s planning to continue accepting public comment through the House’s holiday recess, which ends Jan. 5. The Department of State has said a final congressional map — which must be passed by both the House and Senate and signed by the governor — must be ready by Jan. 24.
Lawmakers are also, simultaneously working on new state House and Senate districts. A commission of legislative leaders and a nonpartisan tiebreaker is in charge of those maps. Drafts are expected to be released Thursday.
WITF’s Sam Dunklau contributed reporting.
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