For the purpose of the decennial redistricting of Congress, the 2020 federal census determined the population of the United States to be 331,449,281, up 7.4% from 2010. Pennsylvania’s population of 13,002,700 was up 2.4%.
Pennsylvania’s increase was not enough to prevent losing a seat in the federal House of Representatives. We will now send 17 representatives to Congress. 13,002,700 divided by 17 yields 764,865 persons per congressman. Most of Pennsylvania’s population growth occurred in the southeast. Thus, congressional districts will be geographically smaller there and larger in the rest of the state.
Responsibility for congressional redistricting is invested in our state legislature. The General Assembly itself is redistricted by a five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC). Pennsylvania’s constitution prescribes the criteria – equal population, geographic compactness and contiguity, and respect for local political boundaries – the LRC is to observe in legislative redistricting. In redistricting for Congress, the General Assembly is not bound to the state constitution. Its authority to redistrict for Congress is derived from the federal constitution.
The federal Supreme Court has re-enforced the constitutional principle of equal population as the main criterium for congressional redistricting. Other than in cases involving disenfranchisement of racial or language-group minorities, the Court has been reluctant to intervene in congressional or legislative redistricting disputes. The Court has recognized that, in being inherently political, redistricting is inherently problematic. It would rather let legislatures resolve their own controversies.
In general, the more a redistricting plan can demonstrate equal population distribution, the less likely a federal court will intervene in its implementation. This judicial restraint has, unfortunately, resulted in great mischief-making by some state legislatures – Pennsylvania’s among them.
The devil, you may have heard it said, is in the details. Computer-savvy political operatives – who work, say, at the National Republican Redistricting Trust or the National Democratic Redistricting Committee – have in recent decades produced redistricting maps for one-party-dominated state legislatures. These maps have congressional districts (often geographically contorted) with completely equal population distribution (0% deviation) with a majority of voters who can be reliably predicted to go with one party for the next ten years.
Voters who will support the party not in control of the legislature are “packed” into a comparatively small number of districts where a congressional candidate of that party will win by large margins. Voters who predictably will support the party in control of the legislature are “cracked” into a larger number of districts in which there will just enough of their number to send a candidate from their party to Congress.
This has been done by Republicans in Pennsylvania. This has been done to the south of us by Democrats in Maryland. Such manipulation of numbers is also predicated on a legal fiction – the federal census represents the best effort to enumerate the population in a moment in time (April 1, 2020) and the numbers, of course, begin to change with the next moment.
But, at least in Pennsylvania, this kind of political behavior may be over. Political operatives are no longer ahead of the curve. Ten years ago, a determined citizen named Amanda Holt acquired the knowledge and computer skills to devise a statewide legislative redistricting map which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recognized as more in accordance with the criteria established by the state constitution than the map devised by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission. The Court made the LRC redo its work.
Three years ago, a suit brought by the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters resulted in a redrawing of the 2011 congressional districting map in a way less gerrymandered in favor of Republicans. The federal Supreme Court was petitioned by Republican leaders of the General Assembly to intervene against this action. The Court chose not to.
Throughout much of this year, Fair Districts PA, an adjunct organization of the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters, and the Committee of Seventy, a non-partisan advocacy group from Philadelphia, have sponsored Draw the Lines PA, an online platform by which interested persons can acquire the knowledge and skills to develop redistricting maps – whether congressional or legislative. There is an ever-increasing number of citizens determined not to have wool pulled over their eyes.
The General Assembly will vote on a congressional map presented to them by the collective efforts of the House and Senate State Government Committees. Both committees have conducted their efforts thus far in an open and transparent manner. Fair Districts PA and the Committee of Seventy may not have given them an alternative.
It still remains to be seen whom the committees will choose to develop their maps and the criteria with which the mapmakers will be instructed by the respective committees to do the work.