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‘Do no harm:’ House lawmakers get an earful on how to redraw Pa.’s congressional maps

  • Sam Dunklau
The Pennsylvania State Capitol building on Monday, June 22, 2020.

 Courtesy Gov. Tom Wolf's Flickr page

The Pennsylvania State Capitol building on Monday, June 22, 2020.

(Harrisburg) — House lawmakers of the chamber’s powerful State Government committee are starting to get ideas and input on their once-in-a-decade task of redrawing Pennsylvania’s congressional districts.

Unlike the process that gives a bipartisan five-member commission the power to draw state legislative district lines, state lawmakers themselves must agree on a bill that divvies up the state among its members of Congress according to the latest U.S. Census data. That process determines which voters are in which districts, and in effect helps shape what the state’s Congressional delegation looks like for the next decade.

In an attempt to open the drafting process to the public, the State Government committee is holding comment hearings across the state and allowing idea submissions through a special website. 

That website will eventually allow people to submit their own map drafts.

“The House of Representatives is committed to undertaking the most open, transparent and accountable process in Pennsylvania history,” said Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), the State Government committee chair. “These hearings play an essential role.” 

Spotlight PA reports the last congressional redistricting bill was approved by then-Gov. Tom Corbett in 2012 in about a week with little to no outside input. Watchdog groups like Fair Districts PA and The Committee of Seventy have been critical of past map drawing cycles, and have for months been advocating for state lawmakers to allow voters themselves to have a say in how the final lines are drawn.

Last week, the State Government committee made stops in Mercer, Allegheny and Fayette counties and heard from several dozen people. Suzanne Broughton, 84, of Allegheny led off her testimony with a challenge for those lawmakers:

“Open up this process further than you already have. Make it easy for the public to follow and participate…insist that the leadership not control the mapping process,” Broughton said. “If these comments are taken seriously, your legislature could indeed produce a map that fairly serves the citizens of our commonwealth.” 

A few themes emerged as testifiers like Broughton offered suggestions: lawmakers should avoid drawing any district lines through individual towns or boroughs — and think carefully about which communities and industries should be part of each new district.

The first, a practice that’s part of what’s known as gerrymandering, is one reason the State Supreme Court threw out Pennsylvania’s last legislatively-approved map in 2018. The state’s constitution specifically bans dividing counties, towns and other municipal areas “unless absolutely necessary.” 

“To see some of these maps that are carved looking like homemade Rorschach tests is ridiculous,” said Hill Jordan of Pittsburgh. “It’s purely political and it’s shameful.” 

Jordan recommended state lawmakers be mindful of all the “overlapping communities of interest” in Pittsburgh, including those of color, and the burgeoning technology and arts communities.

“It’s gonna be critical for the further development of those things that their constituents be allowed to vote in a block,” he said. “There’s no need to split up districts in the city.”  

Even though Pennsylvania’s population grew by nearly 2.4 percent over the last decade, that growth wasn’t enough to keep all 18 of its congressional districts intact. Before the new lines are finalized, one of those districts will have to be absorbed into another. And since population growth wasn’t as strong in western Pa. as it was in the southeast, some experts think that area of the state may be where it happens.

During her testimony, Fayette County NAACP representative Joyce Royster asked lawmakers to be pragmatic about that. She suggested that the 17th and 18th Congressional Districts, in far-western Pa., could feasibly be merged without harming people living there. 

“It’s not like we’re going to have one district that’s sitting there with no representation. That’s not what’s before us,” Royster said. “The question is which one gets eliminated and which ones get consolidated. It’s simple!”

Other speakers like Vernon Ohler of Connellsville called the rural southwestern region where his city sits “the forgotten child” of state political considerations. He said any new congressional district should include cities and towns of similar sizes and makeups.

“A congressional district that would include Fayette and [neighboring] Allegheny County would put Fayette County in unfair competition with urban Pittsburgh in relationship to grants, funding and overall opportunities.” 

The US Census Bureau is expected to deliver a final user-friendly packet of population numbers from last year’s count soon. Earlier this month, the agency gave state lawmakers that data in a legacy format, but that still has to be distilled before new district lines can be proposed. 

On the final day of last week’s testimony, Etta Albright of Cresson had a message for lawmakers still wondering how to draw districts appropriately.

“Do no harm in your decision,” she said. “Wherever your lines are drawn, whoever you represent, people [are] the focus and then the needs for sustainability.” 

Pennsylvania’s secretary of state has said both legislative and congressional maps would need to be finalized before the end of January, otherwise they won’t be able to be used as the basis of next spring’s primary election. 

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