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The public is weighing in on Pa.’s redistricting ideas. So far, they don’t like what they see.

  • Sam Dunklau
The LRC's proposed state legislative maps, approved at a Dec. 16, 2021 meeting, side-by-side.

Sam Dunklau / WITF

The LRC's proposed state legislative maps, approved at a Dec. 16, 2021 meeting, side-by-side.

(Harrisburg) – Pennsylvanians are sharing their thoughts on plans to redraw the state’s House, Senate and Congressional district maps.

Since policymakers in charge of the state’s redistricting processes approved the initial plans nearly two weeks ago, hundreds of online comments have poured in.

A few say they support the proposed boundaries as-is, but the vast majority of commenters say they need improvement. Many argue some municipalities would be unfairly split up between political districts. By law, mapmakers must not do that “unless absolutely necessary.”

“I strongly oppose the elimination of the 82nd legislative district,” Susanne Shearer of Juniata County wrote of the proposed state House map. “It takes away our easily accessible access [sic] to our elected representative…and groups me and my neighbors and community, with others with whom we do not share the same community, problems, or work situations.”

Others are asking mapmakers to make sure the lines aren’t gerrymandered, the practice of designing districts so that candidates of a given political party have a better chance at being elected than others.

“Incumbent protection is not in the [state] constitution and should not be prioritized over other criteria,” Amy Ruffo of Lancaster wrote, arguing the three proposed state Senate districts encompassing the county could be drawn in a way that better reflects Lancaster’s urban and rural areas.

Still others point to data that shows the number of voters that would live in a given state legislative district varies too much. That’s despite the state Constitution requiring that districts be “nearly equal in population as practicable.”

Dave’s Redistricting App, a nonpartisan map analysis tool, shows some proposed House districts encompass several thousand more people than they ideally should, while others are short several thousand people. An analysis of the Senate map shows a similar discrepancy, though DRA notes courts have generally allowed district populations to vary a little.

“These irregularities in population consistency dilute the voting power of the regions of the southeast…especially Montgomery County. These discrepancies should be adjusted in the next version of the map,” Phyllis Blumberg of Bala Cynwyd in Montgomery County wrote of the state Senate map.

Commenters have said similar things about the proposed Congressional map.

“This seems to lump cities in with large sections of rural areas. It dilutes the voices of minorities and probably progressive leaning areas with right leaning conservative areas. I don’t think this makes sense,” Frederick Weidemann wrote.

Some pointed to Dauphin County as an example of that “lumping.” Under the Republican-supported map, three districts would split up portions of the county. While Harrisburg and neighboring communities in Cumberland County would remain in the 10th Congressional district, much of Dauphin’s populated northern and eastern areas would be grouped in with the largely-rural 13th district.

The 10th would also encompass all of Republican-leaning York and Adams counties, which it currently does not.

“This…splits up Dauphin County to weaken its voice by combining the pieces with rural counties with which we have no common bond,” Gina Mistishen wrote.

PA Republican House Caucus / via paredistricting.com

Preliminary Congressional boundary ideas adopted by the House State Government Committee on Dec. 15, 2021.

Mapmakers, who are largely state lawmakers, have pledged to use many of the comments to draw the final maps. But Republicans and Democrats involved in the redrawing have been at odds on the implications of the new lines.

Gov. Tom Wolf, who previously signaled he’d refrain from giving his take on the proposed Congressional map bill until it was sent to his desk, claimed Tuesday that the map is a Republican gerrymander.

In a letter to House Speaker Bryan Cutler and Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, Wolf mentioned the Redistricting Advisory Council he convened earlier this year recommended he review any map proposal in advance.

“The HB 2146 map falls short on this basic measure of partisan fairness, giving a structural advantage to Republican candidates that far exceeds the party’s voter support,” Wolf wrote.

Redistricting analysts are split on whether that’s the case.

Dave’s Redistricting App, which uses data from elections between 2016 and 2020, shows Democrats would have an advantage in nine of the 17 proposed districts, including a slight edge in the 17th. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which only uses data from the 2020 presidential election, shows nine districts would lean Republican.

But DRA notes that the map proposal is “antimajoritarian,” saying “even though they will probably receive roughly 52.46% of the total votes, Democrats will likely only win 47.85% of the seats.”

Both organizations show five of the 17 districts would technically be competitive enough to swing for either major party.

Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), who’s steering the Congressional map redraw in the House, clapped back at Wolf Tuesday, inviting the governor to discuss his objections in person at a proposed Jan. 6 meeting at the Capitol.

Sam Dunklau / WITF

State Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), chairman of the House State Government committee, speaks during a meeting of that committee on Nov. 8, 2021.

“From the start of the redistricting process, the committee has strived to keep the public informed throughout the open and transparent process,” Grove said. “As such, I am hopeful the governor accepts this invitation to meet and talk about the map in an open forum.”

Earlier this month, Grove said that the working proposal – which tweaked an original citizen-drawn map – was not drawn with partisan advantages in mind. He added he’s hopeful an agreement can be reached with the governor so that the state Supreme Court won’t have to step in as it did in 2018.

“I think we both have the same goal: we would like a map that the citizens would be proud of. We have a very similar process working in tangent,” Grove said following a House State Government meeting.

The Department of State wants maps finalized by Jan. 24, in time for candidates to use them in the May primary. But Acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Veronica Degraffenreid said that date could move if that deadline is missed. Logistical and legal roadblocks, including a limited number of voting days next month and a mandated objection period for state maps, may also stand in the way of lawmakers approving maps on time.

In the meantime, Pennsylvanians can keep sharing their thoughts on the maps online. By law, there is a 30 day comment period for state maps. Public hearings to gather comments will be held on Jan. 6 and 7.

State lawmakers have not set a hard deadline for Congressional map comments.

WHYY contributed map visualizations for a previous story.

Pa. Republican lawmakers and the U.S. Capitol attack

As part of WITF’s commitment to standing with facts, and because the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was an attempt to overthrow representative democracy in America, we are marking elected officials’ connections to the insurrection. Read more about this commitment.

Rep. Grove (R-York) is one of several dozen lawmakers who signed a letter asking Congress to object to Pennsylvania’s electoral college vote –despite no evidence that would call those results into question.

This supported the election-fraud lie, which led to the attack on the Capitol.

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