In many ways this was an historic occasion. For the first time, there were two women on the commission. For the first time, one was a person of color. And for the first time, the Chair, Mark Nordenberg, had his own team, rather than simply serving as deciding vote on maps drawn by caucus staff.
Our initial assessment is that both maps are far more fair than House and Senate maps of the past few decades. They provide for greater representation of minority communities, are on average more compact than current districts, and have far less partisan lean than our current maps. While several districts in the current House map are not contiguous, we see no non-contiguous districts in the preliminary maps, and fewer split counties and municipalities.
While we had asked the Commission to begin with a blank slate, Chair Nordenberg made clear that in a commission with four legislative leaders, that was never possible. Despite that, the proposed districts go a long way toward addressing the population shifts reflected in the 2020 Census. That does mean that some incumbents in areas that lost population will now face colleagues in the 2022 primary elections.
The proposed maps reverse decades of partisan gerrymandering to create a more level playing field for PA legislative elections. However, in many ways districts still reflect the priorities of legislators and their leaders, rather than local communities. As long as legislative leaders have a substantial say in the drawing of district lines, the politicians will still have a larger say than the people in deciding how districts are drawn.
One takeaway: there’s no one easy metric that says “Good map!” Every map involves tradeoffs and complex decisions, balancing many priorities.
The proposed PA House map does a good job in balancing priorities, performing far better than the current PA House map by almost every metric. It opens the door for more minority representation, levels the playing field between the two parties, and provides districts that make much more sense for the people who live in them.
Republican Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff voted against the House map, leveling accusations of gerrymandering and complaining that the map targets incumbent Republicans. By our assessment, the proposed map is far less distorted than maps of the past few decades.
The result: bringing the maps back to a neutral condition that complies with the constitution and with court decisions, undoing decades of partisan gerrymandering.
While the overall metrics in the proposed Senate map are also better than the current Senate map, it is not as successful in addressing past distortions. As we dig deeper we see some areas of concern:
As Chairman Nordenberg said in his opening remarks at the voting meeting on December 16, 2021: the Senate leaders shaped the Senate plan with limited interaction and input from the Commission mapping team. And as he also noted, caucus leader participation in the Commission “means that the work of this Commission almost certainly will be influenced more directly by partisan objectives than would be true of the independent commissions that have been created in other states.”
It is likely that there will be adjustments to both maps. For the House map, those adjustments will likely be small. For the Senate map, they will need to be significant.
The outcry from PA representatives about the House map is a good indication that the commission did its work in addressing decades of partisan bias built into the current PA map. The silence from PA senators with regard to the Senate map suggests that the proposed map protects incumbents well and does nothing to create a more balanced legislative chamber
Look closely at the current map, the LRC proposed map, and the FDPA People’s Map. Are changes needed in your own area? If so, please offer comment by January 18, or sign up to give testimony at one of the upcoming hearings.
You can find links to compare maps here.
Watch: FDPA Preliminary Map Review Forum here.
Read: FDPA FAQ LRC Preliminary Maps