This article is part of a year-long reporting project focusing on redistribution and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It is made possible through the support of members of Spotlight PA and Votebeat, a project focused on election integrity and voting access.
Pennsylvania’s proposed legislative maps are an improvement over current boundaries, but still don’t do enough to hold communities of interest together or increase Hispanic representation, residents said this week.
The non-partisan chair of the Legislative Redistribution Commission – the group of key lawmakers tasked with redrawing the boundaries of the State House and Senate – also defended the proposed House map against Republican claims that it unfairly benefits to Democrats.
“It’s embarrassing to talk about myself, but I don’t have professional PR teams like some caucus leaders do,” Chairman Mark Nordenberg said Thursday at the first of four sessions. feedback organized by the commission on the first plan. “And there have been so many baseless claims about the maps, the process, the board staff and myself that I thought it was important to respond because the work of the board is so important. . “
While Republicans argue that the House card is unfair to their party members, standards of fairness as prescribed by the state constitution and adopted by the courts show that it represents an improvement over the current map, found a previous Spotlight PA analysis.
And while the proposed House map has the potential to dramatically alter the balance of power in the chamber, advocates of the redistribution say it’s because it unfolds decades of gerrymandering in favor of the GOP.
“Gerrymandering, by definition, draws lines for personal or partisan benefit,” Carol Kuniholm – president of Fair Districts PA, a group that advocates to make the redistribution process more transparent, said Thursday. “And the house card, from every assessment we can see, overrides the lines drawn for a partisan advantage, which is the exact opposite of gerrymandering.”
House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, both members of the panel, voted against the proposed House map in mid -December. Benninghoff said at the time that he was an “extreme partisan gerrymander” because it increases the number of seats Democrats are expected to win.
“Those of you who want to know where the word gerrymandering started is with a reptilian-looking map,” Benninghoff said at the time. He then referred to the proposed 84th district in northeastern Pennsylvania, which he described as a “better-nourished reptilian map that is equally gerrymandered.”
Nordenberg, former chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, said some districts would inevitably have an odd shape due to the state’s “topography and irregular municipal and county boundaries”, rather than the product of a program. Politics.
He also said the committee had extended a “measure of deference to incumbents” and downplayed the number of current lawmakers who would have been forced to pitch against each other – considerations not taken into account by the cards proposed by advocates. independent of redistribution.
More than 50 people testified in the four feedback sessions Thursday and Friday, held as part of a 30-day public comment period on the cards that ends Jan. 18. The committee intends to hold additional meetings on January 14 and 15.
After the public comment period, the panel has an additional 30 days to make changes before submitting and voting on the final cards. The expected deadline is February 17, weeks after the state’s top election official said she needed final cards to meet the first of several spring primary deadlines.
The state congressional map is established through a separate process.
Representatives from Fair Districts PA and Draw the Lines – another group that advocates for a more transparent redistribution process – called the proposed cards better than current ones because they improve partisan fairness as well as prescribed standards. in the constitution of the state.
However, they said there was more work to be done, especially when it came to creating districts that do not protect incumbents and are competitive, rather than biased in favor of a large political party.
Increasing Hispanic representation in the legislature was also a goal. Pennsylvania’s Latino population exceeded 1 million people according to the last census, and is the engine of state growth.
Many people who testified at the hearing discussed Lehigh County, specifically citing Allentown, a predominantly Hispanic city that the proposed Senate map divides.
Ward, the Westmoreland County Republican, led efforts to create a new state Senate district that would include Allentown and contain a 43% minority population, according to data compiled by Spotlight PA. (You can research to see how your district would change using Spotlight PA’s Map Comparison Tool at spotlightpa.org/mydistrict.)
Because the district would have no incumbent and would have a sizable minority population, Ward argued that he would “give the Latino community an opportunity” to elect whoever they want.
However, residents of Lehigh County wondered why the proposals divided Allentown as well as Bethlehem, another large city with a large Hispanic population. Instead, they want to see State House and Senate districts that maintain entire cities with stronger minority majorities.
“Everyone understands that one of your main missions is to draw maps to increase the influence of minorities,” said Mark Pinsley, an Allentown resident. “However, I think this information was used to convince you that you were doing the right thing in separating the two towns, Allentown and Bethlehem. You were not told that stronger minority neighborhoods could be built by keeping each town intact. . “
Several people spoke of communities of interest, defined as any group or area that shares common values or political concerns. While keeping communities of interest together is not mandated by the state’s constitution, the commission has held several hearings to solicit comments on how people across the state define these communities.
A group of West Pennsylvania State House lawmakers, for example, said the proposed districts mistakenly group together dissimilar suburbs.
School districts are seen as communities of interest, and many residents have suggested changes that would result in their amalgamation. This can be difficult, as school districts routinely cross political boundaries, which cartographers are required to keep together as much as possible under the state’s constitution.
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This story was originally published January 8, 2022 1:42 pm.