Pa. reformed ‘prison gerrymandering,’ but it likely won’t matter in congressional maps

How should Pennsylvania count incarcerated people in state prisons for redistricting purposes?

  • Katie Meyer/WHYY

(Philadelphia) — The state lawmakers charged with redrawing Pennsylvania’s congressional and legislative districts may soon do something not seen in the commonwealth’s recent history: use two significantly different sets of data to draw state and federal election maps.

The disagreement is driven by a question that has become highly partisan: How should Pennsylvania count incarcerated people in state prisons for redistricting purposes?

The commission that draws state House and Senate maps has opted to count most of Pennsylvania’s roughly 40,000 state prisoners in the districts where they’re originally from, not where they’re incarcerated. But it appears likely that the GOP-controlled state legislature, which draws congressional maps, will ignore the change and keep counting prisoners in the districts where they’re locked up.

The fact that a partisan divide would lead to dueling data sets is frustrating to academics monitoring the map-drawing process, who would like to see consistency underlying the state’s approach to drawing election maps.

Brianna Remster, a sociologist at Villanova University who studies so-called “prison gerrymandering,” said if lawmakers do treat prisoners differently in congressional and state legislative maps and that move “sets policy going forward … it’s empirically concerning, as a researcher.”

The question of how to count state prisoners came to a head in August, during a hearing of the commonwealth’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission. The five-member commission — made up of Republican and Democratic leaders in each chamber and a tiebreaker appointed by the Pa. Supreme Court — voted to no longer count prisoners as residents of the districts that house their prisons, but as members of the districts they originally lived in.

The debate over the change split down party lines. Republicans were against it, and the Democrats who championed the measure were in favor. The vote came down to the tiebreaker, former University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg. He sided with the Democrats, saying the change improved “a basic issue of fairness.”

Jacqueline Larma / The Associated Press

This June 1, 2018, file photo shows a housing unit in the west section of the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix in Collegeville, Pa.

That decision set the guidelines for drawing legislative maps, but has no formal bearing on creating congressional districts.

In years past, once the Legislative Reapportionment Commission has voted to accept a data set for map-drawing, the state House and Senate have voted to adopt that same data for the congressional redistricting process.

There’s usually only one set of data to choose from, so the decision is just a formality. In 2011, for instance, the resolution in question breezed through both chambers on an expedited voting schedule.

But this year, Republicans requested that the Legislative Data Processing Center, which prepares U.S. Census numbers for the mapmaking process, deliver two distinct sets of data: one using the old prisoner apportionment method, another using the new reforms. When lawmakers decide what data to use in their new congressional map, they’ll make a choice with significant partisan implications for the first time in recent memory.

Republicans have so far been tight-lipped about how they intend to handle the decision.

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