4 Takeaways from New Pennsylvania Census Data and What It Means for Redistricting Spotlight PA
This article is part of a year-long reporting project focusing on redistricting and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It is made possible thanks to the support of PA projector members and Votebeata project focused on election integrity and access to the vote.
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania has become less white and more concentrated in and near cities over the past decade, changes that have major implications for state lawmakers as they prepare to draw new political maps.
Due to Pennsylvania’s low population growth relative to other states, it will lose one of its 18 congressional seats. This creates a politically daunting task for the Republican-controlled legislature, which is tasked with drawing a new map that must be approved by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
A convoluted process also awaits the Legislative Redistribution Commission, a panel of two Democratic leaders, two top Republicans and an appointed and decisive president who has the final say on the state’s legislative maps.
The commission is awaiting final data so it can create a draft plan for the public, and population figures released last week by the US Census Bureau show they will face many challenges and choices.
“Generally I see this as a Rubik’s Cube problem,” said David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the good governance group Committee of Seventy and chief executive of Draw the Lines.
Mapmakers move a boundary for a district, which then requires them to adjust boundaries to a neighboring district, etc., while adhering to the standards set forth in the state constitution as well as the principles widely touted by state advocates. anti-gerrymandering.
Here are four takeaways from the new census data and what it means for the State House and Senate maps:
Decrease versus expansion
One of the basic principles of redistricting is to have equal (or at least very similar) populations in each district.
With Pennsylvania’s population now exceeding 13 million, an ideal State House district should have just over 64,000 people, while state Senate districts should have 260,000.
There are dozens of House and Senate districts, mostly in rural western and northern Pennsylvania, where the population is below new benchmarks, according to an analysis by Penn student Gianni Hill. Districts controlled by Republicans are more affected than Democrats.
These districts could be combined with others nearby, while mappers could also move western or northern districts to another part of the state experiencing greater population growth.
All eyes on the southeast
In 2011, the House map eliminated districts in Allegheny, Erie, and Philadelphia counties and added seats in Allentown as well as Berks, Chester, and York counties.
Daniel McGlone, principal GIS analyst at Philadelphia-based Azavea and project manager of the DistrictBuilder redistricting tool, said the choice benefited fast-growing Republican suburbs over urban areas. Now, a decade later, the trend has reversed: Democratic areas are growing faster than Republican areas, he said.
Population growth was mostly seen in the Southeast and Lehigh Valley, as well as south-central counties like Cumberland and Lancaster.
The Legislative Redistribution Commission will have a few options when it begins redrawing the maps with the new data.
It could start with a clean slate, drawing new neighborhoods to accommodate shifting populations and growing numbers of Hispanic, Asian American, and Pacific Islander residents.
“There’s a perception that it’s hard to start from a blank map, but it’s not,” said Suzanne Almeida, Redistricting and Representation Advisor for Common Cause.
In addition to nearly equal population, the Constitution of Pennsylvania requires that districts “be composed of a compact and contiguous territory.” It also states that “no county, city, incorporated town, borough, township, or ward shall be divided” unless absolutely necessary.
There are also additional criteria map makers can adhere to, as recommended by good government and anti-gerrymandering advocates, such as agreeing to divide a locality only when necessary to ensure equal representation of non-white Pennsylvanians. The Fair Districts PA grassroots group lobbied to impose stricter rules, but the legislature did not pass the reforms.
Almeida said the commission will have an incredible amount of input and public data to get started. “They just need to make these tough decisions,” she said.
Thornburgh of the Committee of Seventy said starting from a blank map “could take a lot” because the Democratic and Republican leaders involved have 253 sitting lawmakers to consider.
The most likely approach, he said, would be to look at the House and Senate districts, see which are above or below the new population criteria and make adjustments from there. there – keeping in mind public comment and constitutional requirements.
“That’s why most people say it’s more art than science,” Thornburgh said.
Moving one of House’s less populated neighborhoods from the northwest or southwest to Philadelphia — home to some of the most crowded neighborhoods — might seem like a no-brainer. But Azavea’s McGlone noted that mappers should also be aware of existing so-called majority-minority districts that satisfy suffrage law and ensure non-white Pennsylvanians have the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.
There are neighborhoods in North Philadelphia that have lost population, for example, but mapmakers can’t let them grow too much into whiter areas without tipping the scales.
Republicans can argue that Cumberland County is better suited for a new House district, he said, because it has seen one of the fastest growing populations in the past decade.
An uncertain future for rural Pa.
New census data showed a sharp drop in population in rural western and northern Pennsylvania counties, as expected. To accommodate the changes, some rural House and Senate districts will become geographically larger.
This is a problem for residents of these areas for several reasons, according to Kyle Kopko, director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. These voters are less likely to have internet access, and since they cannot contact their lawmakers digitally, they will have to travel long distances to meet in person.
“I think it’s going to raise resource allocation issues, from school funding to transportation to health care,” Kopko said.
The per capita cost of providing services in rural areas will increase, he said, as the remaining population will be dispersed. Rural school districts have experienced this problem before when it comes to rising transportation costs for students, according to a report from the center.
In testimony before the Legislative Redistricting Commission, Kopko said mappers “may want to take into account the ease of transportation within a district and the (in)ability of residents to engage effectively with legislators and their staff. through broadband access.
Broadband expansion in rural Pennsylvania would help level the playing field, he said, but it won’t be a panacea for stopping population decline.
Measuring success (or failure)
A decade ago, piano teacher Amanda Holt produced her own maps in Excel because she worried lawmakers had divided localities unnecessarily and failed to meet constitutional standards. She later became a plaintiff in a case against the State House and Senate cards and won.
Now, there are several free tools, including DistrictBuilder and Dave’s Redistricting, that allow anyone with internet access to create their own legislative and legislative maps.
“It’s a huge change, and it’s really impactful,” McGlone said.
Thornburgh said these tools have democratized the process and will allow citizens to spot problems when state lawmakers release drafts of the new maps.
Pennsylvania was once considered ground zero for gerrymandering – when a map’s district boundaries are manipulated to benefit one political party over another.
“Unfortunately the reason this has become such a hot issue is that this process has been abused in the past,” Thornburgh said.
The state Supreme Court rejected Pennsylvania’s latest congressional map in 2018, finding it unfairly benefited Republicans. The House and Senate maps have not been subjected to the same level of scrutiny, though Spotlight PA and Votebeat previously found that computer techniques used in the 2018 court case show the maps leaning toward the GOP .
Experts and analysts will apply these same tests to new cards this year, and the public will be able to access these scores. RepresentUs and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project recently launched a redistricting report card that will include metrics such as competitiveness and compactness.
Ideally, the commission should explain what criteria it plans to use to create the maps, how it will prioritize those standards, and how feedback from Pennsylvanians will be used during the process.
“We know that not all public testimony will be implemented, but we want them to take it seriously,” Almeida said.
Once the preliminary plan is released, the commission should set aside time to hear from the public about the maps’ shortcomings and make adjustments based on those comments, Thornburgh said.
“If you’re serious about transparency and accountability,” he said, you need to get people’s reactions on a map.
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