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Over the Line: Redistricting both binds & splits State College community

Written by Nick Malawskey/PennLive | Nov 16, 2017 12:53 PM
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Following redistricting in 2000, Allen Street in State College, was split down the middle by state representative districts. The borough was un-split after the 2010 round of redistricting. (Nick Malawskey/PennLive)

(State College) -- State College, home of Penn State University, is something of an oddity: it's a highly developed and densely populated urban core, surrounded by suburban tracts, wrapped in a larger tapestry of rural townships, with their housing development, industrial development, farm field, mountains and deep forests.

And some critics of the way Pennsylvania draws its legislative districts say it's an example of a system that disenfranchises voters by carving up communities to split up voting blocks, favoring one party over another. In doing so, redistricting can fragment communities, lumping voters from one area into a larger geographic region with which they might have little in common.

Infamously, before the last round of redistricting in 2010, State College borough itself was split by legislative districts. Allen Street, arguably the downtown's most recognized streetscape -- was split down the middle.

That was rectified during the last reapportionment. State College Borough is now represented by a single district. But the redrawn state house maps added new, and to some observers, strange wrinkles, primarily in the 77th and 81st state house districts.

Prior to the new maps, the 77th was a large district which encompassed most of State College and the county's northern and western, largely rural, reaches. The 81st district meanwhile, didn't enter Centre County at all.  It primarily covered rural Huntingdon County to the south.

In the 2011 reapportionment, though, a suburban area adjacent to State College was peeled away from 77th District , (represented by Democrat Scott Conklin) and made part of the 81st district, which now stretches from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, through rural Huntingdon County, to the edges of State College.

The district, represented then by Republican Mike Fleck and now by Republican Rich Irvin, now also includes State College suburbs, such as Ferguson and Patton townships where much of the State College area's major commercial and residential growth has happened over the past 15 years.

In doing so it, it leaves State College Borough connected to the rest of the 77th district by only a narrow swath of unpopulated game lands.

"To us it makes no sense," said Tor Michaels, longtime chief of staff to 77th District Rep. Conklin.  "What does a person in Huntingdon County have in common with someone from Ferguson township?"

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In the latest redistricting, the fast-growing suburbs of State College were pulled into the 81st House District (shown in pink), leaving the borough, in the 77th House District (shown in blue), connected to the rest of that district only by a thin swath consisting mostly of state game lands.

In the latest redistricting, the fast-growing suburbs of State College were pulled into the 81st House District (shown in pink), leaving the borough, in the 77th House District, connected to the rest of that district only by a thin swath consisting mostly of state game lands.

Residents of the rapidly growing State College suburbs -- Ferguson's population increased 34 percent between 2000 and 2010 -- likely have different legislative priorities than, say a rural resident or farm owner in Huntingdon County.

Michaels said he believes the districts were redrawn in part to protect Republican seats. While Conklin's district after the last reapportionment may actually be safer -- his district would have lost Republican voters, while retaining the heavily Democratic State College, Michaels said both he and Conklin would prefer the old district.

"The reality of it all is that swaths of his district which he represented faithfully now have to go to Huntingdon, and that makes no sense to us at all," Michaels said.

The State College School District itself is crossed by four state House districts --  emblematic of some of the problems associated with politically drawn districts, said Amanda Paveglio, the coordinator for the Fair Districts PA Centre County chapter.

"So if the school district is looking to try and get something done, how many people do they need to talk to?," she said. "Or, with the budget impasse, how many legislators do they need to call and beg to pass school funding? It's challenging enough when there's just one legislator representing your school district, but when there's [more], and they're at odds, how does that work?"

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