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Redistricting

Pa.’s political mapmakers finally have new census data. Now the hard work begins.

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After months of delays, the U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday delivered the population data needed to redraw Pennsylvania’s political maps, officially setting off a process that will help determine the balance of power in Harrisburg and Washington.
Madhuri Shukla / For Spotlight PA

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.

HARRISBURG — After months of delays, the U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday delivered the population data needed to redraw Pennsylvania’s political maps, officially setting off a process that will help determine the balance of power in Harrisburg and Washington.

The state’s population topped 13 million people in 2020, but because it did not grow as much as other states over the last decade, Pennsylvania will lose one of its 18 congressional seats.

More than 40 counties in the west, central, and northern parts of the state saw declines in population, while the southeast continued to grow. The share of Pennsylvanians who identify as white alone declined from nearly 82% to 75% between 2010 and 2020, as the Hispanic population grew and the number of Black residents remained roughly the same.

Experts believe the numbers likely represent an undercount of people of color, though census officials said Thursday it’s too early to speculate about the quality of the data.

The data release was delayed by several months because of the pandemic, putting state lawmakers under an even tighter deadline to create new political maps before the May 2022 primary election.

In Pennsylvania, the congressional map is redrawn through legislation that must be approved by the governor. The state House and Senate maps, meanwhile, are drawn by four legislative leaders and an appointed chair who sit on the Legislative Reapportionment Commission.

The commission will have 90 days to file a preliminary plan after it determines it has usable data, and the public has 30 days after that to challenge the maps. There is no mandated deadline to complete the congressional map, though lawmakers are facing fast-approaching deadlines to accommodate the primary.

Earlier this year, the state’s top election official told the Legislative Reapportionment Commission “it would be ideal” to receive the final, approved plan by Jan. 24, 2022.

“To circulate nomination petitions, candidates and voters must know the district boundary lines for legislative districts,” acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid said in a letter. “This is essential since candidates running for legislative office may only solicit signatures on nomination petitions from registered voters within their legislative district.”

The data released Thursday are in a raw, “legacy” format that requires additional analysis. Pennsylvania lawmakers tapped the Legislative Data Processing Center and the Pennsylvania State Data Center to perform that work, and officials there expect to deliver the adjusted data needed to draw the maps by mid-October at the latest.

“It’s my hope to get it done faster than that,” said Mark Nordenberg, chair of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission.

Meanwhile, the state House and Senate committees that will first consider the proposed congressional map have begun holding public meetings to solicit input. This is a marked change from a decade ago, when the process largely took place behind closed doors and resulted in a map thrown out by the state’s high court because it was drawn to benefit Republicans.

“Now that the State Government Committee has received the results of the census, the next few weeks will see a lot of number-crunching to determine population shifts and how that will impact the drawing of the final map,” Jim Brugger, communications director for Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill), said by email. “The committee will continue to review the data as well as potential improvements to the process to ensure this decade’s congressional redistricting process is an improvement over the past.”

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission is also holding public hearings, which Nordenberg said have been “particularly useful.”

“We have had people talking about the current lines that divide their county, for example, and how that’s had a negative effect and how it could be changed this time around,” he said.

To finalize the congressional map, both chambers of the legislature must pass a bill and send it to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf for approval. Should the executive and legislative branches fail to agree, the task could once again be sent to the state Supreme Court.

The state House and Senate maps will be considered by members of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, which consists of two Democrats and two Republicans in addition to Nordenberg.

Nordenberg said he couldn’t “fairly comment” on if he believes the leaders will be able to come to an agreement until that part of the process begins.

“Everyone has seemed committed to general principles, and everyone is being agreeable in our interactions,” he said. “I like and respect our caucus leaders with whom I’m working, but I know there will be challenges ahead and only time will tell how they will be resolved.”

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