‘We don’t want chaos in 2022’: Pa. battle over new congressional map stalled over data lag

Due to pandemic-induced delays, lawmakers still don’t have the detailed census data that states need to redraw congressional districts.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa,  D-Allegheny. (AP file photo)

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny. (AP file photo)

Pennsylvania lawmakers are getting ready for their once-a-decade redrawing of congressional and state House and Senate maps.

It’s one of the biggest, most contentious responsibilities they have, involving a lot of high-stakes negotiation. And this year, lawmakers are beginning that negotiation blind. Due to pandemic-induced delays, they still don’t have the detailed census data that states need to redraw districts.

“It will be a tight timeline,” said State Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), who leads his chamber’s caucus.

The last time Costa helmed the Senate Democrats during a redistricting process, in 2011, the states got granular census data in April. These are the numbers that tell them how their populations have shifted, and where they might need to add or subtract a seat in order to keep all the districts relatively equally sized.

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This year, lawmakers aren’t expecting the numbers until around mid-August, and they might not be in an easily usable format until September. So while Pennsylvania knows it’s losing a congressional seat because it grew more slowly than other states in the past decade, it’s hard to begin the conversation about which seat it should be cut — a decision that will ultimately be fraught with politics.

All of this has led to concerns that the commonwealth’s 2022 primary election — currently scheduled for May 17 — might be too soon. In February, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman told the AP that a delay could well be “something we have to consider.”

Costa is hopeful that a delay won’t be necessary. He’s pushing for lawmakers to start holding hearings even before they get detailed data to work through some of the big questions, including: how compact should districts be? How often it’s acceptable to split municipalities between districts? How many “majority-minority” districts — a concept that dates to the Voting Rights Act — should there be.

Republican leaders didn’t return requests for comments on their plans. But Costa said he’s gotten a decent reception from across the aisle.

“I think there’s an interest in doing it,” he said.

Pennsylvania uses separate processes to draw districts for Congress and for the State legislature, and that means there are separate timelines for both.

The state districts are drawn by a committee made up of the leaders of all four caucuses — Senate GOP Leader Kim Ward, and House GOP Leader Kerry Benninghoff, Costa, and House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton. Their first task, picking a fifth member to serve as a tiebreaker, already ended in an impasse. After interviewing dozens of candidates, they couldn’t agree on a member and the decision went to the state Supreme Court. It named Mark Nordenberg, the former dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s law school.

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Once the commission receives detailed election data and officially deems it usable, they kick off a 90-day period in which they must create and disseminate a preliminary plan, which is made public for 30 days of public comment. Then the committee takes a final vote on the plan, and there’s a final 30-day period for appeals to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Congressional redistricting is simpler. It passes as simple legislation, which means the House and Senate draft and pass a plan, and the governor must sign it. If the two sides can’t come to an agreement in time for the primary election, the state Supreme Court can step in and commission a map.

Because the legislature is controlled by Republicans and Gov. Tom Wolf is a Democrat, partisan tension is expected to be high. If the court gets involved, it won’t be particularly unusual. Justices have been part of at least the last three redistricting processes.

The most dramatic intervention was in 2018, when the justices ruled that the commonwealth’s congressional map was unconstitutionally gerrymandered to favor Republicans. The court ordered the legislature and governor to redraw it, and then commissioned a new map themselves when the two camps failed to reach an agreement. It dramatically changed Pennsylvania’s map, leading to a shift in representation in Washington D.C., going from a 13-5 Republican majority to an even split.

That decision gave lawmakers new guidelines for drawing maps. It noted that the criteria for creating districts previously included “the preservation of prior district lines, protection of incumbents, or the maintenance of the political balance.” The new decision said a map upholds the constitution’s requirement for “free and equal” elections when it prioritizes the creation of districts that are geographically compact and contiguous, has population amounts that are as equal as possible, and avoids dividing communities unless absolutely necessary.

Justice Debra McCloskey Todd, the Democrat who wrote the majority opinion in the case, said any map marked by significant partisan gerrymandering to dilute specific votes cannot be called “free and equal.”

She singled out the old 2011 map’s GOP-controlled 7th congressional district, which had covered a convoluted amalgam of communities in Delaware, Chester, Montgomery, Berks and Lancaster Counties, and had been held up for years as one of the worst examples of gerrymandering in the country.

These new criteria, she said, were designed to “provide a ‘floor’ of protection for an individual against the dilution of his or her vote in the creation of such districts.”

Costa, for his part, says he thinks it’s possible the court won’t get involved this year. A lot of attention has been paid to redistricting over the last decade, he noted, and he believes both parties could be more eager to make concessions this time around.

Plus, in 2011 all three branches of government were controlled by Republicans. This time around, Democrats hold two.

“I think there’s a strong incentive to compromise,” Costa said. “We don’t want chaos in 2022.”

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