UPDATED: New PA congressional map rife with gerrymandering
Warning: Strange shapes ahead
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Stunning. Shocking. Disgraceful.
Like someone dropped a bucket of paint on the Philadelphia suburbs.
Democrats did not hold back their displeasure at Pennsylvania’s newly designed congressional district map, which was introduced to the public for the first time on Tuesday afternoon. The Republican-drawn maps are intended to protect GOP gains in the previous election, when Republicans took control of 12 of the state’s 19 congressional districts.
Republicans defended the new districts as being constitutional and fair.
State Sen. Charles McIlhinney, R-Bucks, said changes were necessary, because the state was losing a congressional seat as a result of the latest national census. Census numbers were used to draw the map, as required by law.
“The idea of everyone’s districts saying the same was pretty much out the window right away,” McIlhinney said.
As a result of population growth that was lower than the national average for the past decade, Pennsylvania lost a congressional seat, bringing the state’s delegation from 19 to 18.
With 18 districts, each will hold about 705,000 people.
As was anticipated by most political experts, two Democratic incumbents, U.S. Reps. Mark Critz, D-District 12, and Jason Altmire, D-District 4, will be combined into a single new district.
Assuming all incumbents hold their seats, the congressional delegation will consist of 12 Republicans and six Democrats.
McIlhinney said that was the plan.
“This represents the 12 Republican districts which the people of Pennsylvania elected and the six Democrat districts, which is similar to what the people already elected in the past election,” McIllhinney said.
But the loss of one congressional seat and the removal of a western district does little to explain the strange shapes on the new map’s southeast corner.
The 7th district, currently held by Republican U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, is the most interesting design on the new map. It stretches from southern Montgomery County through Delaware County and across the center of Chester County like a belt.
But that’s not all. The district continues to wander into eastern Lancaster County and north to include about a quarter of Berks County.
After viewing the new map, state Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, who lives in the district, described it as an “unmitigated, absolute disgrace.”
“I am simply shocked,” Vitali said. “Can someone explain to me what happened to the 7th district?”
McIllhinney said the map came out of input from “all interested parties and each individual area.”
“The 7th was the most unique one on the map,” he said. “It was a more complicated area.”
Winding its way around the 7th district is the proposed 6th district, currently held by Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach.
How bad are the divisions in the southeast? Montgomery County is divided among five different districts. Chester County is split three ways. Berks County has parts of four different districts in it.
Some districts seem to be designed to follow major highways as well.
Gerlach’s new district will follow roughly the Route 422 corridor, from western Montgomery County, across Berks and into Lebanon County.
Lehigh Valley split
The 15th district — formerly a rather compact district in the Lehigh Valley held by Republican U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent — now is stretched along the Interstate 78 corridor from the New Jersey border all the way to southern Dauphin County in central Pennsylvania.
But Dent lost one of the three major cities in his district. Easton, which is tied by business and culture to Allentown and Bethlehem in the Lehigh Valley, is no longer in the same congressional district with its two sister cities.
Instead, Easton has been included the 17th district, home of Democrat U.S. Rep. Tim Holden.
State Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Lehigh, called the map “devastating for the Lehigh Valley.”
“This map takes Easton out of the Lehigh Valley for the first time in 40 years,” he said. “That’s unacceptable. Mathematically, there is no reason.”
Holden’s new district is what experts like to call a “vote sink.” Republicans packed as many Democrats into the district as possible, because moving many Democrats into one district means fewer “blue” voters in Republican districts.
Monroe County goes from Barletta to Marino, Holden
Holden comes away with a safe district that now will include the Democratic-heavy cities of Easton, Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, along with the working-class towns in southern and western Monroe County.
The rest of Monroe County will move to the 10th district, where the incumbent is Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Marino.
Including Wilkes-Barre in Holden’s district means the city, the county seat of Luzerne County, has been disconnected from the rest of its region. The remainder of Luzerne County will remain in the 11th district with U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican.
Barletta’s district, in an effort to improve his chances at re-election, has been stretched south along the I-81 corridor. It now will run from Wyoming County, north of Scranton, to Cumberland County, west of Harrisburg.
The congressional map is passed through the General Assembly in the same manner as any piece of legislation. Since Republicans control both chambers and the governorship, they controlled the process this time.
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, chairman of House State Government Committee, defended the process and said the final product was “constitutional, legal and fair.”
“The series of hearings that we had produced a lot of public input,” Metcalfe said. “The process has been a very public process, a very open process.”
The state Senate on Wednesday is expected to vote the new districts out of the State Government Committee and send the map to the Senate floor for a vote. Wednesday is the state Senate’s last scheduled session day until January.
After the state Senate is done with the map, the state House is expected to pass it next week and send it to the governor for his signature.
Samuelson said that was simply not enough time.
“That’s not an adequate time frame to have public input and public reaction in advance of these votes in committee and votes in the full Senate and full House,” he said.
After the maps are approved, challenges to them can be made in court, though historically the courts have avoided interfering in the redistricting process.
This story has been updated to correct the schedule for the bill's final passage in the state House.