This article is part of a yearlong reporting project focused on redistricting and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It is made possible by the support of Spotlight PA members and Votebeat, a project focused on election integrity and voting access.
By Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA
HARRISBURG — A state panel Friday approved Pennsylvania’s new legislative district maps, which could substantially alter the balance of power in the General Assembly for the next decade but are likely to be challenged in court by Republicans unhappy with the state House plan.
The Legislative Reapportionment Commission — a five-person panel composed of the top General Assembly leaders and an independent chair — voted 4-1 to approve the maps, with Chair Mark Nordenberg joining the two Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland).
“I believe that we have succeeded by virtually any measure,” said Nordenberg, a former University of Pittsburgh chancellor. “Even if imperfect, these are good maps that are fair, that are responsive to the requirements of the law, and that will serve the interests of the people of Pennsylvania for the next decade.”
Compared to the initial plan released in December, the new state House map reduces the number of incumbent Republicans who would have to face off against one another. The final state Senate map remains largely unchanged, though it was amended to create a new district in Philadelphia with a significant number of Hispanic voters.
Several metrics that consider partisan fairness — a measure of how well maps reflect the party makeup of a state’s registered voters — show the plans approved Friday improve upon the current state House and Senate maps.
The panel made changes to the maps after it amassed over 6,000 public comments and hosted several hearings. While the approval marks the end of this part of the redistricting process, the maps are likely to face further scrutiny.
Anyone can bring a challenge to either map directly to the state Supreme Court over the next 30 days, which, based on Republican opposition, is expected to happen.
The final state Senate map passed Friday with little debate, as did the initial version in December. It improves upon fairness metrics laid out in the state constitution and is expected to maintain the balance of power in the GOP-controlled chamber.
Advocates for an independent and transparent redistricting process argued the initial map overly accommodated incumbents; the final version maintains two incumbent matchups.
The state House map, by contrast, has drawn fiery criticism from Republicans because it creates seats that could be won by Democrats.
Redistricting advocates said the shift seems severe because the map reverses decades of gerrymandering in favor of Republicans. Nonpartisan analyses show that the state House map approved Friday improves upon neutral fairness criteria and still has a Republican bias.
The partisan shift also reflects the population changes Pennsylvania experienced over the past decade, with rural areas losing residents and urban and suburban areas in the southeast gaining them.
The state House map creates 103 Democratic seats in the 203-member chamber, according to one analysis produced by Dave’s Redistricting, a nonpartisan website that allows anyone to upload and analyze district maps.
However, Dave’s Redistricting categorized 12 of those seats as competitive, meaning they could be won by either a Democrat or Republican. In total, there are 28 competitive seats.
In a press conference, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) accused Nordenberg and nonpartisan good-government groups of acting for political reasons. Nordenberg has defended himself against such claims, saying the process provided “equal opportunity for the representatives of each caucus.”
Citing an analysis by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project for The Inquirer, Benninghoff said the state’s political geography — with Democrats clustered in urban areas and Republicans spread out — gives the minority party about 93 seats in the state House.
Redistricting academics have explained that while the state’s political geography is beneficial to Republicans, mapmakers can create plans that reflect the overall partisan makeup of the state — where Democrats outnumber Republicans — while still abiding by the fairness criteria mandated in the state’s constitution.
Benninghoff repeatedly expressed concerns regarding the state House map’s treatment of people of color, notably Latino and Black communities. He alleged that Lancaster, Reading, and other areas that are home to sizable communities of color were split in order to benefit Democratic incumbents.
The state House’s three Latino representatives and the leadership of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus expressed their support for the map.
In an open letter, Reps. Danilo Burgos (D., Philadelphia), Angel Cruz (D., Philadelphia), and Manny Guzman (D., Berks) called the map responsive to Hispanic growth in the state. In some of the districts Benninghoff accused of being cracked — meaning unnaturally split to dilute the voting power of minority communities — the lawmakers said the Hispanic population is currently too concentrated. Spreading out these voters will increase their ability to influence elections, they said.
Good government groups and organizations that advocate for marginalized communities such as PA Voice, The New Pennsylvania Project, and Better PA also praised the map for its commitment to racial equity.
“We applaud the LRC for its sincere commitment to considering racial equity as a core value throughout this mapmaking process,” said Salewa Ogunmefun, executive director of PA Voice, an organization that works toward an inclusive democracy by expanding the power of people of color.
With court challenges likely, candidates for office are facing an uncertain future as the Feb. 15 start date to collect signatures for the May primary rapidly approaches.
A group of residents in areas of the state that saw large population growth over the past decade filed a suit in Commonwealth Court requesting it to adopt a new election calendar. The court in late January rejected a request from the petitioners to hold a “prompt” status conference.
The attorney representing the petitioners said to “expect further action in the coming days.”
WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.