This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.
This article is part of a yearlong reporting project focused on redistricting and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It is made possible by the support of Spotlight PA members and Votebeat, a project focused on election integrity and voting access.
A key state Senate committee agreed Tuesday to put guardrails on how Pennsylvania lawmakers draw congressional maps, while stripping out proposed limits on how the General Assembly’s own districts are drawn.
The bill, which passed on a near party-line vote in the chamber’s State Government Committee, diminished anti-gerrymandering advocates’ hopes of preventing Pennsylvania’s most powerful lawmakers from drawing maps that unfairly benefit one political party.
An amendment offered by the panel’s chair, Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill), removed all proposed reforms to the legislative redistricting process, including requirements to hold public meetings and allow public comments, as well as to add additional criteria that advocates say could lead to fairer state House and Senate maps.
Experts say while the amendment significantly rolls back and weakens transparency and accountability provisions in the original bill introduced by Sen. Lisa Boscola (D., Northampton), the proposed guardrails would still be an improvement over the way the state’s congressional maps are currently drawn.
It’s the first time in three decades that Pennsylvania’s congressional map — which will be reduced from 18 to 17 districts — will be decided by a divided government, with Republicans controlling the General Assembly and Democrat Tom Wolf in the governor’s seat. National Democrats have already anticipated an impasse and have filed a lawsuit asking Commonwealth Court to step in if the elected officials can’t come to an agreement.
Argall said the bill had a better chance of passing if it only focused on congressional redistricting, which he hoped would “reverse at least some of the hyperpartisan efforts of the past.”
“We thought that, better we try to fix this one problem now and then move on rather than try to do it all at once,” Argall said. “Our fear is that if we try to do it all at once, the bill will fail again.”
The original bill — and its identical House version — was supported by 25 senators and 89 representatives from both parties.
Boscola told Spotlight PA and Votebeat she was disappointed the amendment gutted the guardrails for legislative redistricting, which is done by a five-person commission of legislative leaders and an appointed outside chairman.
She said she was less concerned about congressional redistricting, as there are built-in checks and balances. Wolf can veto the final product, while the Democratic-controlled Pennsylvania Supreme Court could throw out a congressional map if the justices deem it unconstitutional.
But such reform was desperately needed when it came to the legislative districts, Boscola said.
“The power of the pen is still going to be with the five individuals [on the Legislative Reapportionment Commission],” she said. “The four [party] leaders, they didn’t want to give up the power of the pen.”
Commissioners of that panel previously said they’re committed to making their map-drawing process transparent and have pledged to hold public hearings while they await population data set to be released in mid-August, but no such meetings have been scheduled.
Argall’s proposal keeps some remnants of Boscola’s bill as it relates to congressional redistricting.
It requires the House and Senate State Government committees to explain how the proposed congressional map follows state and federal redistricting criteria and how the map differs from the previous decade. In December 2011, Republican lawmakers revealed and passed a new congressional map in less than two weeks without any public input.
The committees would also be mandated to hold at least four public hearings around the state to get input on what the congressional maps should look like and to develop a system for receiving and publicly sharing written comments and citizen-submitted maps.
But Argall’s amendment removed language that prohibits lawmakers from unduly favoring one political party over another — the hallmark of gerrymandering.
“There are people that think that’s a very difficult goal to attain,” Argall told Spotlight PA and Votebeat in an interview last week. “Our goal is to pass a piece of legislation that meets court muster. Our goal is not to pass something that gets thrown into the trash can the first time a judge says, ‘Well you helped candidate X, when you promised to be completely nonpartisan or bipartisan.’”
But Yurij Rudensky, redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, said that argument doesn’t pass muster. Multiple courts — including the Pennsylvania Supreme Court — have acknowledged that computer-based methods can determine whether a map is drawn with one party at a disadvantage.
The state’s congressional map was redrawn by an outside expert in 2018 after the state Supreme Court found Republicans maximized the number of congressional seats for their party while disadvantaging Democrats.
And experts have said the state’s current legislative maps skew toward Republicans — who controlled the process the last time the maps were drawn — and that it is unlikely this happened organically.
Under Argall’s amendment, lawmakers would need to draw congressional districts equal in population and would be prevented from splitting up cities, towns, boroughs, townships, or voting precincts.
One objection raised by Fair Districts PA, a nonprofit group advocating for redistricting reform, is that Argall’s amendment prioritizes avoiding municipality splits and population equality above all other standards — including compactness and communities of interest — rather than considering all of the standards with equal weight.
“Mappers could draw strangely shaped districts that do nothing to renew trust or bring voters closer to district offices,” Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA, said in an email to members of the Senate State Government Committee.
Fair Districts also takes issue with what the group said is a lack of transparency in a “broken legislative process.” A few hours before the meeting Tuesday, the amendment still wasn’t publicly available online, and the public wasn’t allowed to testify on the proposed amendment.
“The process once again ignores voters’ concerns, voters’ voices, and our constitutional right to alter and reform our government,” Kuniholm wrote.
Rudensky, from the Brennan Center, said it’s unclear whether Argall’s proposed criteria of prioritizing equal population and prohibiting municipality splits would give either party an advantage. Democrats in Pennsylvania tend to cluster in urban areas and cities, while Republicans are spread throughout the state’s rural counties.
“It may well be possible to comply with these criteria and still have a map that doesn’t offer all communities fair representation,” Rudensky said. “But without clearly articulated protections, there’s always the possibility of gaming the system.”
The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration and would then need the approval of the House to reach Wolf.
Boscola’s original bill was a concession by reform advocates like Kuniholm who want the district lines to be drawn by an independent redistricting commission without lawmakers, who would’ve had to give up their power to decide what their districts look like.
Proposals to create such a commission never advanced in the legislature.
Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media.