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Politics & Government

Pennsylvania House expected to vote on proposed congressional map as redistricting lawsuit looms

Pennsylvania state capitol harrisburg statehouse
Tim Tai
/
Philadelphia Inquirer
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., is pictured on Wednesday, June 23, 2021.

The state House is expected to vote on a proposed congressional map this week, as spring primary deadlines and a lawsuit that asks Pennsylvania’s highest court to take over the highly consequential process loom large.

A spokesperson for House Republicans told Spotlight PA the chamber will likely consider amendments to the proposal Tuesday, with a final vote expected Wednesday.

The preliminary map was approved by the House State Government Committee in December along partisan lines.

The panel’s chair, Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), first put forth a map drawn by a well-known redistricting advocate — former Lehigh County Republican Commissioner Amanda Holt — and hailed it as a response to public pressure to remove lawmakers from the redrawing process.

After complaints from some of the panel’s members, that committee advanced an altered version of that map a week later, before the public could review it.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who must approve the map for it to take effect, said in a letter the map falls short in partisan fairness and creates a result that isn’t proportional to the balance of Democratic and Republican voters in the state.

The decennial process of drawing new political boundaries helps determine the balance of power in Harrisburg and Washington. In the past, it has been an extremely politicized process that has been subject to lawsuits and accusations of gerrymandering — when a map is drawn to benefit one political party.

While Republicans controlled both the executive and legislative branches a decade ago, Wolf’s role as governor gives Democrats the opportunity to reject the proposal and let the state courts handle the process.

Despite the map’s importance, Wolf and the legislature are running up against the clock.

The state’s top election official has asked to receive the final congressional map by Jan. 24 in order to meet the first deadline associated with the spring primary.

Unlike the state House and Senate maps, the current congressional map is unusable because the state lost one of its 18 seats due to sluggish population growth.

Anticipating that Wolf and the Republican-controlled legislature won’t be able to come to an agreement on the congressional map in time, concerned citizens and redistricting advocates are lobbying the state Supreme Court to take over.

Two lawsuits targeting the map — one from a group of residents who live in population-dense areas, the other from mathematicians and scientists seeking a “data-driven” process — were filed in Commonwealth Court in December.

The suits, since merged into one, argue that the courts should intervene in the process and ban the state from using the current map for the 2022 election.

In late December, Commonwealth Court gave Wolf and the legislature until Jan. 30 to enact a plan, while it asked interested parties to submit proposals. Should they fail, the court will begin considering submitted maps the following day.

The parties who brought the suit have also asked the state Supreme Court to immediately take over the case. The court could issue a ruling on the request at any time, or decline to respond to it.

A number of people — including Wolf and the top Democratic and Republican leaders — have asked to intervene in the case, as have members of fair redistricting advocacy groups who are represented by the Public Interest Law Center.

The center handled the 2018 case that saw the Pennsylvania Supreme Court draw a new congressional map, finding the one approved by former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in 2011 was drawn to benefit GOP lawmakers.

Should the state House approve a map, it will then go to the state Senate for consideration. Lawmakers in that chamber are expected to release their own proposed congressional map this week.

Pennsylvania’s state House and Senate maps are drawn through a separate process controlled by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, a five-person panel made up of the four top legislative leaders from both major parties and a nonpartisan chair.

The commission released initial state House and Senate maps in December that are now under a 30-day public comment period that ends Jan. 18. You can see how your district would change under those proposals by using Spotlight PA’s map comparison tool at spotlightpa.org/mydistrict.

After that, the commission has another 30 days to make adjustments. Anyone who objects to one or both of the maps can file an appeal with the state Supreme Court within 30 days.

Spotlight PA’s Danielle Ohl contributed reporting.

90.5 WESA partners with Spotlight PA, a collaborative, reader-funded newsroom producing accountability journalism for all of Pennsylvania. More at spotlightpa.org.