Congressional map passes House, on way to PA gov
Corbett expected to sign it
By: Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Voters in Pennsylvania: Meet your new congressional districts.
Perhaps more accurately, the congressional delegation now can meet its new voters.
The state House approved the new congressional district map with bipartisan support, 136-61, on Tuesday afternoon, less than one week after the map was made public. The bill passed the state Senate on Wednesday and awaits Gov. Tom Corbett’s signature.
The congressional map has been criticized by Democrats, regional chambers of commerce and government reform groups for its several oddly shaped districts that appear to have been drawn with the interest of Republican and Democratic incumbents.
“This bill allows the politicians to choose their voters instead of the people to choose their representatives,” said state Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Cambria.
But the state Supreme Court might have the final say on the matter, as opponents of the new districts plan to appeal the map in the hopes of changing at least some parts of it.
In particular, opponents have pointed to the new 7th Congressional District, which is spread across portions of five counties and includes urban Delaware County along its border with Philadelphia, suburban parts of central Chester and Montgomery counties and rural portions of eastern Lancaster County.
Political observers have calculated that the district is one of the five most gerrymandered congressional districts in the country, based on statistical analysis.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, acknowledged that politics may have been a factor, but “not a controlling factor.”
“In drawing the new maps, we had to account for the loss of a seat and the population shifts,” Turzai said.
The seat being eliminated is on Pennsylvania’s western edge, where U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-District 4, and U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, D-District 12, have been drawn into the same district to force an incumbent-vs-incumbent in the spring primary election.
Republicans hold 12 of the 19 current congressional districts and used their control of the state House, Senate and governorship to draw a map that attempts to secure those 12 seats for the next decade.
With the state losing one congressional seat because of the recent national census, each of Pennsylvania’s 18 new congressional districts will have about 705,000 residents.
But that does not mean those residents are within the same geographic area.
Berks County, for example, would be divided among portions of four different congressional districts. The county has a population of about 410,000.
By comparison, Philadelphia County, with a population of 1.5 million, is divided among only three districts.
“Montgomery, Chester and Berks counties all face a decade of disunity under this plan,” said state Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Clinton. Montgomery and Chester counties will be divided among four and three different districts, respectively.
Other parts of the state — generally viewed as communities of interest — also have been divided by the new map, opponents argued.
In the northeast, the new map keeps the twin cities of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre in the same district, though the surrounding counties largely have been placed in a different district.
The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre district also includes Easton, one of the three cities in the Lehigh Valley region. The other two, Allentown and Bethlehem, are in a different district.
That division raised the ire of Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce and local lawmakers.
The former Lehigh Valley district — the 15th Congressional District — now will run from the Delaware River to the Susquehanna River along the Interstate 78 corridor.
“It’s not a Lehigh Valley congressional district anymore. It’s just a congressional district that includes part of the Lehigh Valley,” said state Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton.
Turzai said the map met the constitutional and statutory responsibility to keep all districts of equal population and with respect to the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits discriminatory practices such as disenfranchising minorities.
“The fact of the matter is the Lehigh Valley is still the Lehigh Valley, and the fact that it can have two congressional representatives is important as well,” said Turzai.
There are other interesting shapes too. The new 12th Congressional District will run from the Ohio border, through the Pittsburgh suburbs and all the way to Johnstown.
The 10th Congressional District will include the state’s northeastern corner of Pike and Wayne counties to Perry County in the south central region of the state.
On Monday, House Democrats attempted to amend the congressional redistricting bill with a different plan, which Hanna sponsored. He said the Democratic plan had more compact districts and better respected communities of interest. (Click here to see that map)
Turzai argued that six of the proposed districts were more compact on the GOP plan, but Hanna countered that since there are 18 districts, that meant 12 districts are more compact on the Democratic map.
The alternative plan fell to a 85-108 vote on the House floor.
The new congressional map is moving quickly through the General Assembly, because lawmakers want to have the district lines in place before the end of the year. The first step of the election cycle begins in early January.
The pace and design of the new districts have prompted calls for reform from both sides of the aisle in the General Assembly, but Republicans have defended this year’s redistricting as the most open and transparent in state history.