News & Politics

State panel approves new legislative districts with bipartisan vote

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Caucus

A five-member panel tasked with redrawing state legislative maps approved a final reapportionment plan Friday that will establish electoral districts for the Pennsylvania General Assembly for the next 10 years. 

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission approved the final maps with a 4-1 vote, with House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff casting the lone “no” vote, calling the state House map a “gerrymandered” final product that will benefit Democrats. 

LRC Chair Mark Nordenberg, the chancellor emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh, defended the final maps approved by the commission and said they reflect the population changes that Pennsylvania has experienced over the last 10 years. 

“Even if imperfect, these are good maps that are fair, that are responsive to the requirements of the law, and that will serve the interests of the people of Pennsylvania for the next decade,” Nordenberg said during the meeting, adding that after the final maps met state and federal requirements, the commission looked to position “voters in racial and ethnic minority groups to influence the election of candidates of their choice.” Nordenberg noted that Pennsylvania’s population growth from 2010 to 2020 was largely driven by people of color.

“The most significant changes revealed by the most recent census were declining population in Pennsylvania’s rural areas, substantial population growth in the Commonwealth’s urban areas – particularly in the southeast – and a marked increase in the Commonwealth’s nonwhite population,” he said. 

The commission’s two Democrats – Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa of Allegheny County and House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia – joined Nordenberg and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, a Westmoreland County Republican, in voting to approve the two maps.

McClinton said that “The House map fairly reflects the significant demographic changes since the last census. It provides equal opportunity for all members and for the entire electorate to participate in the electoral process,” she said. “In addition, the map includes nine districts with no incumbent and communities with very large minority populations, which will provide opportunities for minority candidates to run for office.”

Ward said she believes the Senate map meets constitutional guidelines and that, given that her “primary duty and obligation is to the Senate,” she supported the maps. 

“This is an imperfect process, and it’s an imperfect final plan,” she said. “But I am confident that at least the Senate portion of this meets all the constitutional requirements and will be able to … stand up against the legal challenges.”

Benninghoff, of Centre County, criticized the final House map hours before the commission convened for a vote, saying it “subordinates the nonpartisan redistricting criteria for purely partisan purposes.” He also added that the final House map would end up creating more districts that are favorable to Democrats. 

Benninghoff offered his own amendment to the final House map, which, he said, would make population levels more equal in each House district. Benninghoff said his plan has a population deviation of 7.99%, compared to the LRC map, which Benninghoff said has a population deviation of 8.65%.

His plan also would have reduced the number of municipalities that were split in the final LRC plan, he said. He touted his amendment for its impacts on minority communities, noting that his own map would have removed municipal splits in Allentown, Harrisburg, Lancaster and Reading, and would still increase minority voting power.

“It is obvious that this amendment better meets the legal standards than the final map that you will be revealed to later. In the end, this all comes back to the Constitution and giving people a chance to pick their politicians rather than the other way around. My amendment does that,” Benninghoff said. “It ensures that the commissioners comply with our constitutional obligations, respects the growth of the minority groups in the Commonwealth and corrects numerous problems in the proposed final plan.” 

Ultimately, the commission voted down Benninghoff’s amendment with a 3-2 vote, with Nordenberg joining Democrats to reject the amendment. 

Following the commission’s final vote on the plan, Benninghoff said the House map “does not create fair districts.” 

“This map’s competitiveness is so bad that it will only lead to increased polarization, less bipartisanship and more gridlock,” he said. 

Despite criticisms from Republicans over his handling of the redistricting process, Nordenberg said he believes the final maps approved on Friday were the end product of “a thoughtful process, not an exercise in targeting incumbents of either party.”