The U.S. Census Bureau released new population data from the 2020 Census recently, showing a 2.4 percent growth rate in Pennsylvania over the last decade. Even with the slight increase, the Keystone State will lose one congressional seat as state and U.S. legislative maps are redrawn.
Most of the population gains came in the Delaware Valley. The Associated Press reports, “Philadelphia’s population rose by 5 percent— or nearly 78,000 residents — to 1.6 million, while two of its suburban counties, Montgomery and Chester, grew even faster.”
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney attributed much of the dramatic population growth to immigration, calling it “‘great news for the city of Philadelphia.’”
Other counties across the state, including Cumberland, Lebanon, Dauphin, and Lancaster, also saw increases. On the western side of the state, Erie lost roughly 7 percent of its population, while Pittsburgh’s population also decreased by a couple thousand.
With the new Census data, the state legislature is now tasked with redrawing U.S. and state legislative maps. However, that process won’t be as easy as it was for the legislature 10 years ago.
When the maps were redrawn in 2011, the GOP controlled the legislature, the governor’s mansion, and the state Supreme Court. Because of the overwhelming Republican majority, the maps that were redrawn at that time favored the GOP through gerrymandering. Gerrymandering, a common practice since at least 1812, is named for Massachusetts Gov. Eldridge Gerry who drew an electoral map resembling a salamander and tends to favor whichever party is in power.
Those maps were redrawn in 2013 for “[cutting] through too many municipalities” and were subsequently approved by the state Supreme Court. Five years later, that court ruled the maps were unconstitutional and redrew them yet again.
This time around, however, the GOP only has control of the legislature, meaning Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf can veto a map drawn to help Republicans, or the Supreme Court can rule that a map is unconstitutional for the same reason.
As a result, lawmakers in charge of drawing the new maps are committed to ending gerrymandering and have promised to ensure a transparent process with public input. Currently, a bill is being considered in the state Senate that would help bring more openness to this process.
State Sen. David Argall (R-York, Schuylkill), Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) and Rep. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) are looking to include the public’s opinion in how the districts should be redrawn, hoping that this will get more Democrats on board with their redistricting decisions, especially Wolf.
In a press release, Argall said, “‘I believe passing this version of the bill gives us the best chance to make long overdue progress on this issue and ensure that all Pennsylvanians can have confidence in this decade’s final congressional maps.’”
As part of the push for greater transparency, Rep. Wendi Thomas (R-Bucks) joined Grove last month to announce a series of hearings across the state where Pennsylvanians can make their voices heard.
Thomas said, “‘In these divisive political times when many people have lost faith in their political systems, it’s critical that we open the system as much as possible.’”
Rep. Craig Williams (R-Chester/Delaware) is also enthusiastic about the push for transparency.
“‘The current congressional maps were drawn by the state Supreme Court in 2018 without any public input. Pennsylvanians must have the opportunity to participate in this process which is fundamental to our form of government,’” Williams said in a statement. In addition to the hearings, the legislature is also launching a website, www.paredistricting.com, where citizens can submit their thoughts on redistricting virtually.
House Republican Caucus spokesman Jason Gottesman did not say whether lawmakers or the caucus would try and bolster the party’s presence as part of the redistricting process.
“The House Republican Caucus and Leader (Kerry) Benninghoff (R-Centre, Mifflin) remain committed to a fair, open, and legal redistricting process,” Gottesman said. “Earlier this year, we were proud to announce the Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus was taking the lead on developing the most transparent redistricting process in Pennsylvania history.”
However, with the new population growth in more urban areas and Democratic trending suburbs, there may be some fear among Republicans that the legislature will turn blue.
Veteran GOP political consultant Christopher Nicholas says that while Republicans know they have to fight hard to maintain their legislative majority, they’re in a strong position headed into 2022. And. redistricting should help.
“These changes happened gradually since the maps were redrawn in 2014. The GOP had a good day last year,” Nicholas said. “The Democrats tried everything, and they still lost some seats in the house.”
Nicholas added the GOP will focus their attention wherever it needs to be. “Seats move differently at the state level than they do at the congressional level. We’re going to do our best to put up candidates who can win races against Democrats,” he said.
The Pennsylvania GOP remains concerned and is prepared to fight a Democrat-led lawsuit that would see the state Supreme Court make redistricting decisions if the governor does not approve a map drawn by the legislature.