First PA Congressional map drafts give the GOP a slight edge in future elections

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HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) — Two proposed congressional district maps — one formally released by House Republicans, one leaked from the Senate — are now public in Pennsylvania.

Both would likely be better for Republican candidates than the current, court-drawn map is, but lawmakers say neither will be their final draft.

The House map was drawn by a non-lawmaker: Lehigh County piano teacher Amanda Holt. She rose to Pennsylvania mapping prominence in 2012, when the state Supreme Court cited her analysis in its decision to reject the state Senate map Republicans had drawn the previous year.

Her proposal appears to prioritize two criteria: minimizing splits to voting precincts and municipalities, and keeping district sizes equivalent.

The Pennsylvania House State Government Committee's preliminary congressional map, released Dec. 8.

Pennsylvania House State Government Committee. The Pennsylvania House State Government Committee’s preliminary congressional map, released Dec. 8.

The result is a map that creates seven districts likely to be safe for Republicans, and five likely to be safe for Democrats. Of the remaining five swing districts, two favor Republicans and three favor Democrats.

It would create a generally more favorable playing field for Republicans than the current map, which features seven safe GOP districts and an additional GOP swing, and six safe Democratic districts and an additional four swing districts that favor Democrats. Pennsylvania lost one congressional seat following the 2020 census due to population shifts.

Advocates have long asked for political maps across the country to be more proportional, meaning whoever is elected to office is as representative of the group of people who chose them as possible.

Dave’s Redistricting App, a nonpartisan website that produces analyses of political map data, reviewed Holt’s map using that criteria and found it to be “anti-majoritarian” on the whole.

“Even though they [would] probably receive roughly 52.46% of the total votes, Democrats [would] likely only win 47.44% of the [Congressional] seats,” the analysis said.

It also showed Holt’s map to be significantly less compact than the 2018 map, meaning that fewer people in a given district live near each other on average, and though two districts would represent more voters of color than white voters, those voters are not as well-represented under Holt’s proposal overall.

In testimony she made to the House in July, Holt, a Republican who used to serve as a Lehigh County Commissioner, noted that she draws maps with the belief that they should have clear standards. Equal population and avoiding splits, she said, are things “that can be easily fact checked” and are “clear and measurable.”

Fair map advocates have raised their eyebrows at the House’s choice.

“That one map was chosen from submitted maps without any clarification of what the rationale was,” said Carol Kuniholm, who heads group Fair Districts PA. “So when we look at the map that was selected … we would not we would not consider it the best of the maps that were submitted.”

The Holt map, she said, appears to be “playing Tetris” to allow for no population deviation and few municipal splits. As a result, she notes, it includes “strange contortions” in Dauphin County, around Harrisburg, and divides up Chester County in ways she worries “don’t reflect the concerns of the people in those communities.”

“There were maps that certainly would have done a better job addressing that,” she said.

David Thornburgh, who heads the good government group Committee of Seventy, noted that Pennsylvania’s political geography — Democrats packed into cities and Republicans spread thinly across wide areas — makes it difficult to draw maps that accurately reflect the state’s Democratic registration advantage.

“It might be hard to do a lot better given the way the political geography of Pennsylvania works out,” he said of making the map responsive to voters’ desires. “But you want as many districts as possible to be in fair play for both political parties. We don’t want to lock in partisan advantage for the next 10 years.”

The Committee of Seventy’s Draw the Lines PA project drew its own composite congressional map based on the work of more than 7,000 people, each of whom competed in map-drawing competitions the project held over the last few years. An analysis of that map shows that like Holt’s proposal, it would create five seats safe for Democrats and seven safe for Republicans, but that Democrats would have at least a slight advantage in all five of the remaining competitive districts.

House State Government Committee Chair Seth Grove (R-York), who is largely in charge of the drawing effort in his caucus, said in a statement Wednesday that the committee chose Holt’s map for being free of “political influence,” and for the ways in which it split up the state’s population.

“The introduction of this map is a starting point, and we look forward to hearing the thoughts of residents across Pennsylvania about how this map would impact their community and how they are represented in Washington, D.C.,” Grove said.

Rep. Scott Conklin (D-Centre), the Democratic chair of that committee, said he’s “disappointed” in the choice of Holt’s map over the 18 others that were submitted, though he’s hoping for a chance to negotiate changes before the map arrives on Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk. Conklin added the map was chosen without the involvement of Democrats, despite assurances to the contrary.

“When somebody says they’re going to be transparent and open, I expect them to be transparent and open,” he said. “This is politics. That’s what they’re playing here.”

An unfinished negotiation

The Senate map that became public late Wednesday, meanwhile, was less of an intentional statement of values than a snapshot of an unfinished negotiation.

 

The map, circulated online in PDF form, notably appears to draw Congressman Brendan Boyle (D-02) out of his district — though that wouldn’t preclude him from running for it — and to draw State Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia), into it. Street, who chairs the state Democratic Party, is the ranking Democrat on the Senate State Government Committee and has been heavily involved in a bipartisan negotiation on the map.

In addition, the proposal creates a gnarled second Pittsburgh-area district, trading the current purplish suburban Allegheny County seat — held by Democrat Conor Lamb, who is running for Senate — for a convoluted, more GOP-friendly district that runs through Beaver, Allegheny, Butler, Armstrong, and Indiana Counties.

It also carves Harrisburg out of the rest of Central Pennsylvania, lumping it into a district that stretches all the way to the New York border.

Street stresses that map is a draft — a “snapshot” of the negotiation process. He says the twisty 17th District, for instance, looks like that because a GOP staffer dropped in the 16th District from the Holt map, and was trying to adjust surrounding districts to fit. They hadn’t finished finessing it when the map was leaked.

Street does defend several aspects of the draft. He says it re-distributes voters in the Philly suburbs in a way that makes one of the Democratic members there, Chrissy Houlahan (D-06), safer, while not giving any nearby Democrats prohibitively competitive districts.

Of the decision to draw Boyle out of his district and give himself a path to run there, Street acknowledged, “I’m not upset about that.” He notes that the map Fair Districts PA submitted did something similar to Boyle’s district.

Sen. Dave Argall (R-Schuylkill), the GOP chair of his chamber’s State Government Committee, declined to discuss the map’s specifics, or give a concrete timeline for a final proposal.

“It’s still very fluid,” he said. “We had an agreement today and it could blow up in five minutes.”

The map was widely derided by Democrats on social media, but got qualified support from at least one prominent member of the party: Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), the chamber’s minority leader.

“I want to thank Senator Street for getting the process of congressional maps started, and doing so in a bipartisan fashion,” Costa said in a statement. “The proposed map he has put forth with Senator Argall starts our conversation over here in the Senate, and I’m pleased to see that it protects the Voting Rights Act.”

More time for public comment

Heading into this once-a-decade mapping process, lawmakers had promised more transparency than in previous years’ notoriously secretive efforts — despite the fact they are not required to incorporate feedback from the public.

Both chambers say they intend to hold hearings on draft maps before attempting to pass a final proposal. The House has scheduled an informational hearing on Holt’s map for Thursday evening and a vote on the proposal for 8 a.m. Monday.

In the meantime, lawmakers are inviting the public to give their thoughts on the map. Argall says the Senate doesn’t yet have a timeline for releasing its own draft, though Democrats indicated a committee vote on it could come next month.

Congressional maps must be passed by both the House and Senate, then signed by Wolf. If they can’t come to a consensus, the state Supreme Court, currently controlled by Democrats, may have to intervene and draw a map itself.

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission, a separate five-member body that’s in charge of producing state House and Senate maps, has yet to publicly introduce its proposals for either.

The Department of State has said lawmakers should finalize maps by Jan. 24 to allow enough time to circulate nominating petitions ahead of the May primary election.