Pennsylvania redistricting struggle looms

Advocates against gerrymandering criticized several oddly-shaped state house districts in Philadelphia during an April protest.
PHOTO: Metro file

Advocates pushing for an end to gerrymandering examined legislative district maps like a Rorschach test or a piece of modern art Thursday afternoon in front of Independence Hall.

They dubbed state house district 170 in Northeast Philly the “robo-claw of Somerton,” while house district 191 was called the “clever crawfish of Cobbs Creek.”

Legislators and activists are gearing up for redistricting, a once-in-a-decade process due to begin in the coming months when political boundaries are redrawn to reflect population changes revealed in the census.

As a result of the 2020 count, Pennsylvania will again lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Census Bureau said earlier this week, setting up what’s likely to be a mad scramble to consolidate the state’s Congressional districts.

A national group affiliated with the Democratic Party reportedly already filed preemptive redistricting-related lawsuits in several states, including Pennsylvania.

In the commonwealth, Congressional maps must be approved by the GOP-controlled legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, while a commission composed of state legislative leaders draws the boundaries for the Pennsylvania house and senate.

Gerrymandering, a term that dates to 1812, refers to a technique used to break up voters with common interests or pack them into a single district, diluting their political power.

Laura Richlin, of Fair Districts PA, speaks to a group of supporters Thursday afternoon during a rally in front of Independence Hall. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Fair Districts PA, the nonpartisan organization that led the Independence Hall rally, is calling for a reapportionment system that is more transparent and favors compact districts over those that are politically-expedient.

“They’ve drawn their districts to protect incumbency,” said Laura Richlin, one of the group’s leaders. “They’ve drawn out somebody who they no longer wanted to run against.”

During Thursday’s event, there was a skit with a fictional Senator “Gerry Mander,” a parody of a politician willing to rig the maps to get reelected.

John Prenis, of Northeast Philadelphia, brought a large sign and a hat covered with political buttons. He said he became more involved in activism following the rise of former President Donald Trump.

“Voting rights are very close to my heart,” Prenis told Metro. “Obviously, we need to respect the county boundaries and district boundaries that already exist and the way neighborhoods are built up.”

Advocates ridiculed a number of areas, including state house district 197, during a rally Thursday in Old City.PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Three years ago, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out the state’s 2011 Congressional maps, saying they gave Republicans an unlawful advantage, and the judges redrew the districts.

Fair Districts PA is attempting to build support for a pair of reform bills in Harrisburg.

The legislation, according to its sponsors, would open up the process to the public and establish clearer rules for map drawing. Both bills were reintroduced in February after failing to advance during the last legislative session.

Though the Census Bureau published general state population counts on Monday, it said detailed data needed for redistricting won’t be sent out until August and September.

Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation is shrinking from 18 to 17. It had 21 in 1990 and has lost seats in the U.S. House of Representatives following every Census since 1930.

The commonwealth’s population, now at just over 13 million, grew by 300,000 since 2010, but the increase, at 2.4%, was ranked 43rd out of 50 states.