Reevaluating Pennsylvania’s redistricting

Amanda Maltin, Contributing Writer

To the average voter, congressional district mapping may seem like a trivial task. However, in an election season where the majority party has a narrow margin in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, small changes to district maps can lead to big changes in election outcomes. In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf recently vetoed a new map devised by his Republican colleagues. In a memo released on Jan. 26, the Democratic governor proclaimed that the map “does not deliver on Pennsylvania Constitution’s guarantee of free and equal elections.”

Pennsylvania is notorious for its gerrymandered maps; in fact, in 2004, the Supreme Court heard a case regarding congressional districts in Pennsylvania. The plaintiffs claimed that the Republican-led state legislature had unfairly drawn district lines to undermine Democratic voter influence. Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of the state legislature. Interestingly, Anthony Kennedy agreed that state legislatures are “in the business of rigging elections” through political gerrymandering, but, he elaborated, a “workable standard” would be necessary to quantify and argue its existence in court. 

Gerrymandering is a systemic issue in the U.S., and it undermines the legitimacy of elections. The seemingly obvious solution is redistricting maps in a nonpartisan manner, but that’s easier said than done. Competitiveness, representation and geographical feasibility are all tenants of a “good” map, and cartographers have found that it is exceedingly difficult to incorporate all of these when drawing district lines. Furthermore, when it comes time to approve of a new map, it is difficult to come to a consensus where each deciding party feels that their priorities are met and that there isn’t a partisan bias that undermines their ability to win elections. 

Hence, the present problem here in Pennsylvania. The state legislature is in a partisan gridlock because each new proposed map (at least 14 have been submitted for consideration) slightly favors one party over the other, dilutes the political power of either rural or urban voters, or it meets standards of fairness but is geographically unreasonable. The Commonwealth Court issued a Jan. 30 deadline for a new map to be approved by a judge. However, it is likely that the ruling will be appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, prolonging the process even further. 

It’s clear that the redistricting process has become a mechanism through which partisans try to tip the balance of elections in their favor at the expense of the will of voters. While Governor Wolf has taken some measures to address this issue, like the 2018 executive order that formed a commission to “review non-partisan redistricting processes in other states that reduce gerrymandering, provide opportunities for public comment at community meetings and online, and make recommendations to the governor and legislature,” it is clear that simply talking about the issue at hand isn’t enough. 

In order to prevent this gridlock in the future, Pennsylvanians should urge their representatives to revisit House Bill 22, otherwise known as the Legislative and Congressional Redistricting Act. This bill, which was devised in 2020 but never taken to a vote on the chamber floor, overhauls the redistricting process. The bill would require the state legislature to make all discussions about the redistricting process publicly available, as well as set specific criteria for a “fair map” so that a workable standard can be used to assess proposed changes. It would also mandate an analysis of census data well before the redistricting deadline, ameliorating the issue of election delays that have been caused by the current legislature’s stalemate. Without public pressure, it is unlikely that real change will be made to the redistricting process in Pennsylvania and throughout the country, so contact your local representatives to find out what is going on in your state. 

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