Redistricting

Pa. Republicans send doomed congressional map to Gov. Tom Wolf, likely handing the choice to state courts

by |

Gov. Tom Wolf has vowed to veto the plan in its current form.
Gov. Tom Wolf has vowed to veto the plan in its current form.
TYGER WILLIAMS / Philadelphia Inquirer

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 — Pennsylvania Republicans have sent Gov. Tom Wolf a congressional map he has vowed to veto, a move nearly guaranteed to put the courts in charge of determining the state’s new district lines.

The state Senate voted 29-20 on Monday to approve a Republican-backed plan that nonpartisan analysts say has a clear GOP advantage. The state House approved the map along party lines earlier this month.

Legislators in the state Senate said they had sought a compromise that would have given the congressional map a chance of getting Wolf’s approval. They were facing a Jan. 30 deadline set by Commonwealth Court to finalize the map or turn the process over to the courts.

With today’s vote, it now seems all but assured the state courts will pick the map.

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) told reporters before the vote on Monday that legislators had tried over the past few weeks to reach an agreement.

“And it just comes down to: We can’t agree,” she said. “The governor is going to veto anything that is not what he produced, and the courts will wind up drawing maps.”

Every 10 years, Pennsylvania redraws its congressional boundaries to account for population changes. Because of the state’s sluggish growth, Pennsylvania will lose one of its 18 seats.

The process is an intensely political one, with the outcome helping determine the balance of power in Washington. Advocates fought to create an independent citizens’ commission to draw the map, but Republican leaders failed to advance such a proposal, and redistricting still remains in the hands of elected lawmakers.

The previous redistricting cycle’s congressional map was thrown out in 2018 by the state Supreme Court, which deemed it an illegal partisan gerrymander.

The map that passed Monday was initially drawn by Amanda Holt — a noted redistricting reform advocate and former Lehigh County commissioner — and championed by state Rep. Seth Grove (R., York). It was amended by Grove’s committee after GOP members of the panel criticized how their counties were split.

It improves upon four fairness criteria outlined in a previous state Supreme Court ruling, but nonpartisan analyses show it has a partisan bias in favor of Republicans.

State Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill) held hearings on the process as chair of the State Government Committee. He and state Sen. Sharif Street (D., Philadelphia) had planned to release their own, bipartisan proposal, but in the end, ran out of time to reach an agreement. An earlier, leaked version of their map was met with immediate scorn by Democratic lawmakers and operatives.

“It’s not a perfect map,” Argall said of the version that passed Monday. “Guess what? There is no such thing as a perfect map. But I do believe … that it is a much-improved map over previous maps approved over the years.”

Street said the map was not the result of a bipartisan process, or of the “sincere negotiations” he and Argall had been engaged in for the last seven months.

“It is a map that will most assuredly get vetoed,” he said.

A spokesperson for Wolf previously said he would veto the congressional map in its current form. He told reporters in December that negotiating the map was not his role, then surprised many by releasing his own proposal on Jan. 15.

Anticipating the impasse, two groups of Pennsylvanians — one made up of academics, the other of residents who live in population-dense areas — asked Commonwealth Court to intervene in December.

The court set a Jan. 30 deadline for Wolf and lawmakers to finish the map, while also asking the citizen petitioners, Wolf, Republican and Democratic lawmakers, and other approved parties to submit their own proposals by Jan. 24.

The court will hold hearings on those maps this Thursday and Friday. It could pick one as soon as Sunday. A lawyer for one of the petitioner groups said it’s likely the ruling will be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Asked whether the state Senate was resigned to having the high court draw the map, Ward said the chamber was trying to prevent that but that Republicans could not override Wolf’s veto without support from some Democrats.

“And we have been working, trying to work with them, but they called us last night and said, ‘We’re not for it,’” she said.

Spotlight PA’s Angela Couloumbis contributed reporting.

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.

Support Spotlight PA’s vital independent journalism now and for a limited time your gift will be DOUBLED.