Opposition to Pennsylvania State House Map Getting Voluble, and Not Just Among Republicans

Pennsylvania Capitol Building

 

Across the Keystone State, more and more observers are raising concerns about the proposed district map for state representatives.

The redistricting plan, crafted by a majority-Democrat Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC), has received reproach for unduly advantaging Democratic candidates, lacking competitiveness and diluting minority-voter strength. The period during which the LRC is hearing public comments on the map continues until January 18. 

Shortly after that comment period ends, the commission may make revisions and will then vote on a final map, concluding a process that the Commonwealth must undertake once every decade to equalize all districts’ populations according to Census data.

On competitiveness—i.e., the potential for a candidate of either party to win a district—the left-leaning Bucks County Courier-Times yesterday sounded off against the LRC plan for rendering all but two of Bucks County’s 10 state-House districts unwinnable by either a Democrat or a Republican. Of the eight uncompetitive districts, five would be lopsidedly Democratic while three would be solidly Republican. Currently, seven House members from Bucks County are Republicans while three are Democrats.

“When you remove a legislative district’s competitiveness you remove the political upside of reaching across the aisle to build consensus around popular, moderate proposals,” the newspaper remarked. “Instead it becomes more politically advantageous ‘to play to the base’ when the biggest threat to a representative’s re-election comes from within his or her own party. That’s a recipe for more division and more extremism.”

In taking this view, The Courier-Times echoes the “F” competitiveness grade given to the LRC’s map by the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project. The Princeton analysis finds that a mere 16 of Pennsylvania’s 203 legislative districts contain a voting population that could conceivably elect a member of either party.

Many critics of the plan, including GOP state lawmakers, see the commission’s manner of shaping the districts as geared to advantage the party to which most of the commissioners belong, a tactic known as gerrymandering. 

Republicans are citing the Princeton assessment as well as a review of the LRC map by Brigham Young University political scientist Michael Barber. The professor concluded, based on simulated redistricting plans he generated, that the 107 Democrat-leaning districts emerging from the LRC’s work total about 10 more than the number justified by Pennsylvania’s demographics. 

“…The degree to which the Commission’s proposal diverges from the distribution of simulation results is extreme and represents a significant deviation from a fair outcome,” Barber wrote. “Thus, the significant deviation observed here strongly suggests that the Commission’s plan was drawn using some other, or additional criteria. This could, of course, include a motivation for Democratic partisan advantage given the incredibly large deviation between the number of Democratic districts generated by the proposal and the range of Democratic-leaning districts generated by the simulations.”

Barber’s report also contends that the LRC unnecessarily divides a number of cities, including Allentown, Lancaster, Reading, and Harrisburg. These cities contain sizable minority populations which, according to the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act, should not be needlessly split in order to avoid diluting minorities’ political power. 

Republicans took their problems with the commission’s map on the road, holding two field hearings of the House Majority Policy Committee, one in McCandless, Allegheny County, and the other in Upper Allen Township, Cumberland County. At these events, local officials and other residents expressed disapproval of various facets of the LRC’s proposal. Committee Chairman Martin Causer (R-Bradford) has submitted the testimony heard by his panel to the LRC.

If Republican lawmakers still find fault with whatever plan the LRC finalizes in the coming days, they can ask the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to reject the plan and force the commission to remap the districts. This outcome seems unlikely as the Democrats control the state’s high court five-to-two. 

Indeed, the court has already aided the Democrats’ redistricting aims by appointing a member of their party, Mark A. Nordenberg, as LRC chair. In addition to the respective leaders of each chamber from both parties, the Supreme Court-appointee rounds out the five-member commission, in this case giving Democrats de facto control of the panel.

Pennsylvanians wishing to offer their views on the state House redistricting plan can do so online at www.redistricting.state.pa.us/comment/. 

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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to bradvasoliwriter@gmail.com.
Photo “Pennsylvania State Capitol” by PA Senate GOP.

 

 

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