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What Does The 2020 Census Data Mean For Allegheny County's Congressional Representation?

Voting booths are set up at one of Allegheny County's satellite voting locations in October 2020.
Lucy Perkins
90.5 WESA
Voting booths are set up at one of Allegheny County's satellite voting locations in October 2020.

While the winning political party of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes often flips, one thing has been certain for decades: the Commonwealth loses electoral sway with every census count. And even though the 2020 data was no exception, it surprised many by showing that Allegheny County shrank less than expected.

“As a western Pennsylvanian I was just pleasantly surprised by how much Allegheny County grew,” said political analyst Ben Forstate. “27,000 people is nothing to scoff at, especially since we haven’t grown since 1960.”

Still, the new data will require the two districts that overlay Allegheny County to pull from more conservative areas outside their current territory.

Both are currently held by Democrats: U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle represents most of Pittsburgh in the 18th District, and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb represents Allegheny County suburbs and Beaver County.

“PA-18 shrunk less than expected, and PA-17 grew more than expected,” said Forstate said. “The North Hills grew quite a bit — Wexford...the western half of the county from South Fayette to Moon to Quaker Valley grew quite a bit as well and added several thousand people.”

In 2022, congressional districts across the country will grow and average about 761,169 people. Because the populations of both Lamb and Doyle’s district are below that, they’ll both need to add several tens of thousands of people.

“There are maps that I could see the 18th pulling areas from Lamb’s district," Forstate said. "I could also see it pulling areas from Westmoreland County or suburbs of the city like Murrysville or New Kensington.”

While the district that represents Pittsburgh will all but certainly be represented by a Democrat, the leanings of the moderate suburban district Lamb represents are less clear.

“It’s certainly possible to maintain Lamb’s district as somewhat competitive as well,” said Forstate, but “it will ultimately depend on who draws the maps and the criteria they use.”

State Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, who represents Allegheny County, says it’s a priority to ensure there’s a competitive district that Democrats could represent in Western Pennsylvania.

“I strongly believe that it’s important for us to have this type of representation in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “If we don’t have a second Democratic seat in this area, we’re left with one, which is largely a City of Pittsburgh seat. And then from Erie to Greene County, from Ohio, probably, all the way to Chester County — everything would be Republican. And that's not reflective of the districts that we live in.”

Costa, who sits on the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, expressed concern that Republicans will push to have Lamb’s district absorbed into the current 14th and 16th districts — which are represented by Republicans Guy Reschenthaler and Mike Kelly, respectively.

“It’d be wrong,” Costa said. “Quite frankly, if we’re going to do anything with regard to the maps, we need to look to where the population loss was. That’s what [Republicans] said to us 10 years ago when they took a seat out of southwestern PA and moved it up to Monroe [County] in the state Senate. They need to be consistent.”

Costa said that would likely mean reconfiguring the northern tier of Pennsylvania.

But despite his concerns, Costa is optimistic that the new congressional map will include a competitive district for Democrats.

To do so, Costa says, one option could be to split the city of Pittsburgh, currently represented by Doyle. His district could then be expanded south into Washington County or into northeast portions of Westmoreland County.

Still, Costa says it’s hard to predict what a map would look like because Democrats haven’t seen a proposal from Republicans. But “at the end of the day, we need to have balance in as many districts as possible,” he said.

The challenging part about drawing congressional districts is that there aren’t very many rules, noted David Thornburgh, president of the nonpartisan group the Committee of 70.

The two criteria that must be met stem from the federal Voting Rights Act and past U.S. Supreme Court rulings and are broad: All congressional districts must be roughly the same size, and minority populations don’t lose political influence because of how a district is drawn.

The 2018 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, which forced the state to redraw its gerrymandered congressional districts, also offers guidance that reflects state law.

“It basically says, districts have to be compact and contiguous to avoid splitting political jurisdictions unless necessary to achieve the population balance,” Thornburgh said.

Until state lawmakers produce a draft map, Thornburgh says, it will be hard for the public to weigh in on how fairly districts are drawn, but he says one thing is clear: “This is a night-and-day different situation than we had 10 years ago.”

In 2011, Republicans controlled the state legislature and the Governor’s office, and they held a majority on the state Supreme Court. That’s not the case now.

“The Republican caucuses can’t propose a map that suits their need to the exclusion of the Democrats because they know that the governor is going to veto it. Even if you had a map that passed muster in the House and Senate that the governor signed, you could be vulnerable to lawsuits that would take you to the Supreme Court," he said. “I think that is a good thing because it ensures that neither one of the major parties can have their way with the districts."

Furthermore, Thornburgh notes, more people are paying attention to redistricting than they were in 2011.

“There are thousands of eyes and ears on this process," he said. “There’s no perfect way to do this. Everybody acknowledges that. But it’s got to be done in the light of the day and with real input from voters.”

Gov. Tom Wolf announced the creation of a six-member advisory council on Monday that includes a geographer, mathematician, political scientists and legal experts who he says will be tasked with determining whether a proposed map has been gerrymandered.