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Redistricting Fight in Upper Providence Headed to Court

This article first appeared in Broad & Liberty 

Gerrymandering used to be an under-the-radar political fight, known mostly to insiders. In recent years, it has taken on new prominence as congressional and state legislative districts are rewritten every ten years — with the spoils going to the victors.

Pennsylvania’s most recent round is a case in point: despite losing the statewide vote by 379,000, Democrats control the state house today because of lines forced through by the Democrat-controlled state Supreme Court.

The process goes on in miniature across the commonwealth, too. One such line-drawing fight is playing out in court right now in Upper Providence Township in Delaware County.

The township is governed by a board of five members, each elected in a single-member district. When the lines were last drawn 30 years ago, the districts were roughly equal. Now, minor population shifts have left some more populous than others. So, the township council shifted the lines to make the districts closer to equal in population.

Everyone agrees that the districts are now more equal in size, but the way they got there — and which neighborhoods were put where — is a more contentious topic. Some Upper Providence residents allege that the lines are unnecessarily disruptive and were drawn to protect a Democratic majority on the board. The board, through court documents, denies this is the case.

Just shy of 40 percent of the township is Republican, but four of five members of the township council are Democrats. The residents opposing the changed borders say that the changes “shifted the partisan balance of the Township strongly in favor of the Majority party,” according to their website.

But wait a second — in the current registration analysis, Republicans only have an advantage in one district, and then that shifts to an advantage in two districts. How can this be a gerrymander?

“My ultimate contention is that right now, there are only two Dem ‘leaning’ districts. I know on paper there are four in their ‘column,’ but frankly, given voting trends and turnout rates, the D+5 and D+6 districts are extremely competitive toss-ups,” said Joe Solomon, one of the driving forces behind the website and lawsuit.

“What [the council is doing] is essentially sacrificing an advantage in one of the toss-ups (the 3rd District — albeit, it remains a toss-up) and by doing so they guarantee themselves another district in the 4th District,” Solomon continued.

“So the gerrymander is that, instead of having a 2–1 advantage in seats and competing for the other two with an advantage, they now guarantee a 3–1 Council, which is majority control. They no longer have to spend campaign resources in the 4th District and can reliably count on majority control of the Township for the foreseeable future,” he concluded.

Everyone agrees that the districts are now more equal in size, but the way they got there — and which neighborhoods were put where — is a more contentious topic.

The council declined to respond to Broad + Liberty’s request for comment, citing the pending lawsuit, but did include copies of their response to the charges, which they have filed with the courts.

“[I]n 2022, the Democrats won in all five districts decisively. Republicans cannot show that they lost narrowly anywhere. Republicans also did not have ‘wasted votes’ because they did not win any races,” the council’s reply brief says. “If anything, it shows Republicans are vastly overrepresented by the one seat they held on Township Council.”

Also in those filings, the council’s attorney notes that the challenges to the new lines ignore independent voters in their calculus while also pointing out that even under the old district lines, Democrats carried all five districts in the 2022 races for governor and United States senator.

At the heart of the dispute is the question of whether the boundaries chosen by the Democratic-majority council rise to the level of the standard in Pennsylvania’s gerrymandering caselaw, which the state supreme court in League of Women Voters v. Commonwealth describes as showing that the map “clearly, palpably, and plainly violates the Constitution.”

Defining exactly what that means is not easy. The Upper Providence case could be the first since League of Women Voters in 2018 to drill down on exactly how one could prove such a violation.

CUTLER/BENNINGHOFF/GROVE: A Fair Congressional Map Awaits Final Approval

The citizen-drawn congressional redistricting map received a resounding endorsement when Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough recommended to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that it be used in the upcoming election.

We couldn’t agree more with Judge McCullough’s decision on the map, introduced as House Bill 2146, and strongly urge the state’s highest court to follow her recommendation.

In her 228-page report, which critiqued all map submissions, McCullough wrote that the citizens’ map “meets all of the traditional criteria of the Free and Equal Elections Clause, and does so in respects even noted by the governor’s expert, as well as the other considerations noted by the courts, it compares favorably to all of the other maps submitted herein, including the 2018 redistricting map, it was drawn by a non-partisan good government citizen, subjected to the scrutiny of the people and duly amended, it creates a Democratic leaning map which underscores its partisan fairness and, otherwise, is a reflection of the ‘policies and preferences of the state, as expressed in statutory and constitutional provisions or in the reapportionment plans proposed by the state legislature.’”

The submissions included maps from the governor and House Democrats, neither of whom attempted to move their maps through the proper channels of the legislative process.

The history of the citizen-drawn map goes back to July 2021 when the House State Government Committee kicked off the most transparent, citizen-driven congressional redistricting process in the history of our Commonwealth with the first in a long series of hearings. Over the next few months, the committee went to the people all over the state to receive their input on congressional districts. It also opened the actual map-making to citizens and, in the end, selected a map drawn by Lehigh Valley resident Amanda Holt.

Unfortunately, Gov. Tom Wolf swiftly vetoed the map, even though he declined to take part in the Legislative-led redistricting process, after it was passed through the General Assembly.

We weren’t the only people to be left scratching our heads on why the governor vetoed the map. McCullough was also apparently puzzled, writing in her report “although Gov. Wolf vetoed House Bill 2146 and that bill never obtained the official status of a duly enacted statute, neither Wolf nor any other party herein has advanced any cognizable legal objection to the constitutionality of the congressional districts contained therein.”

The State Supreme Court has an opportunity to right the governor’s wrong and we truly hope the justices seize the opportunity.

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UPDATE: State Supreme Court Puts Candidates’ Petition Gathering on Hold

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Wednesday put a hold on candidates’ gathering signatures for their petitions to be on the ballot for the May 17 primary.

At issue are appeals to the newly-redistricted maps awaiting a ruling from the High Court.

But for the most part, intrepid Pennsylvania candidates are taking the delay in stride. Signature gathering was set to begin Feb. 15.

“It is unfortunate, but we are all going to have to make the best of whatever new schedule is issued,” said George Bochetto, a Philadelphia lawyer and Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate.

Dave White, a former Delaware County councilman who is running for governor said, “Governor Wolf has created a mess through his attempt at a partisan power grab. My hope is that Pennsylvania elected officials and citizens will have the opportunity to draw congressional lines and determine who our representatives are. Unfortunately, if the past is a harbinger of the future, we will again see a liberal professor from California determine the congressional representation in Pennsylvania. It’s sad and proof we need a change of leadership.”

Dave Galluch, a Newtown Square Republican running for the congressional seat now held by Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Delaware Co.), also blamed Wolf.

“From the very beginning of this process, it was clear Governor Wolf had little interest in constructively working with the legislature to come to a consensus solution,” said Galluch. “Our goal should be to give every citizen a voice, no matter where they live in Pennsylvania. Things didn’t have to unfold this way. The process could have been orderly, sensible, and completed on time. It’s unfortunate the Governor was content to drag his feet so the court would eventually have to intervene — making it more difficult for candidates and voters alike to prepare for the upcoming election.”

“We’re ready to go as soon as we’re given the green light. We have a statewide network of circulators chomping at the bit,” said Charlie Gerow, a GOP consultant also running for governor. “We hope that the Supreme Court will do the right thing with reapportionment and that we can get back on schedule as soon as possible.”

Guy Ciarrocchi, the Chester County Chamber president who is also a Republican running for governor, said, “I am blessed to have dozens of volunteers ready to stuff petition-packets to mail to hundreds of volunteers across the state.  We are ready to go as soon as the Supreme Court gives the green light.”

“Our nominating convention is scheduled for next Tuesday (Feb. 15),” said Michael Taylor, solicitor for the Chester County Republicans. “We traditionally hold it on the first day of petition signing. We are still deciding on the best path forward. So the main difficulty is the immediate change of gears.

“Overall though, I think the Supreme Court made a smart move in placing the stay. We were working through scenarios of what to do if the lines suddenly changed. We may have ended up with two conventions. In the end, the Court removed those issues and gave us the scheduling issue instead.”


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Proposed Congressional District Maps Multiply as Deadline Looms

The Pennsylvania Senate State Government Committee approved the state House’s proposed map outlining 17 new congressional districts on a party-line vote this week, sending it to the full Senate for a final.

The proposal, already approved by the House, will face fierce partisan debate as ongoing negotiations over a separate Senate map continue behind closed doors. The issue became more complex after Gov. Tom Wolf surprisingly revealed two new proposed maps Saturday, despite repeatedly promising he would not participate in the process.

The deadline for passage set by the Department of State for final approval is next week. A Commonwealth Court said the judiciary will take over the process by Jan. 30.

It remains unlikely Wolf would sign a bill containing the House map if it were passed by the Senate as is—he wrote a public letter in December castigating it after it passed the House.

However, the bill will likely be amended before a final vote is taken.

During the Senate committee meeting, Sen. Katie Muth (D-Chester) voiced concern over changes she believes the maps needs including alteration to address “prison gerrymandering.”

“It’s fair to say that everything is still on the table,” Sen. David Argall (R- Berks/Schuylkill), chairman of the Senate committee, said in response.

“There’s no such thing as a perfect map,” Argall told Delaware Valley Journal. “We’re continuing to negotiate with Senate Democrats. The hearing later this week will look at the governor’s map and will look at some other alternatives. We know we have a firm deadline and we’re steadily moving forward.”

While the House map faces scrutiny on the Senate floor in the coming days, alternative maps not only hang over the process but are multiplying as the deadline looms.

Wolf issued a press release Saturday unveiling a new proposal that favors Democrats, which he called “examples.”

“Throughout the congressional redistricting process, I have publicly outlined the requirements for a fair map that I would consider signing,” Wolf said in the press release. “While the House Republican map does not comply with those basic principles, I am highlighting two maps that do.”

An analysis done by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project on behalf of The Philadelphia Inquirer found Wolf’s proposal would create nine districts favoring Democrats and eight favoring Republicans.

Republican legislative leaders were not happy with the map, or the timing of Wolf’s proposal.

“Over the last six months, the House Republican Caucus championed and led the most transparent congressional redistricting process in Pennsylvania history,” Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre/Mifflin) said in a statement. “Over that same period, the Wolf administration either ignored or publicly admonished our repeated good faith attempts to work collaboratively toward a final congressional map.

“By releasing his maps today, Gov. Wolf is completing the final play of his well-worn playbook of refusing to work with the legislature on substantive issues, waiting until the clock has nearly run out, and then changing his mind and attempting to issue a unilateral ultimatum that is devoid of all sincerity of effort.”

A third, bipartisan option drafted by Sens. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) and Argall caused public strife between Democrats after it was leaked in December.

U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle told the Inquirer he believed Street was “conspiring with Republicans to push a gerrymandered Republican map for personal political gain.”

An updated version of the Senate map has not yet been made public.

If the Jan 24 deadline to enact a new map is not met, a few courses of action could happen: The spring primary election could be pushed back as negotiations continue, the state courts could step in and enforce an interim map, or all 17 districts could turn into at-large districts in which voters statewide choose candidates in each.

The state has been using an interim map made by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court since 2018, which swung four districts from Republican to Democrat in the following election.

With lawsuits pre-filed in state courts by national Democratic groups, Wolf publicly dissatisfied with all maps but his own Democrat-friendly options, and the Republican-controlled General Assembly still far from coming to a compromise that Wolf will sign, it appears the court is poised to step in this time as well.


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Top Stories of 2021 Point to a Busy 2022

Pennsylvania politics was awash in drama in 2021, from constitutional amendments, elections, election reform, and more.  Let’s take a look at five story lines from this year, three that happened, and two that didn’t.

What Happened:

The Constitution Shall Be Amended

Constitutional amendments aren’t new for Pennsylvania voters, but the impact of two questions before voters in the 2021 primary elections will be felt for years to come.  Tired of vetoes from the Democrat governor and lost cases before the Democrat controlled Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Republicans in the legislature took the fight on COVID restrictions to the voters.  Despite efforts by Gov. Wolf to slant the ballot questions, allowing the General Assembly to end an emergency declaration and limiting a unilateral Emergency Declaration to 21 days without the approval of the General Assembly, the measures both passed.

Pennsylvania became the first state in the nation to limit a governor’s emergency powers as a result of COVID restrictions, but it didn’t stop the governor.  Wolf used his health secretary to mandate masks in schools, but the courts overruled this move, even his Democrat allies in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court didn’t come to his aide this time.  After over a year of shutdowns and restrictions, the tide has turned on COVID restrictions, it started here on May 18, 2021.

Josh Clears the Field

Yes, the race for governor and U.S. Senate will be decided in 2022, but in today’s world of politics, the race starts well before the calendar flips.  Both contests will be no doubt be vigorous and expensive.  The primaries and general election are likely to break records in terms of money spent, save one contest, the Democrat primary for governor.  Attorney General Josh Shapiro appears to have a cleared the field and will cruise to the nomination in May.  Meanwhile Republicans have more than 12 candidates vying for the nomination.  In the U.S. Senate, Democrats have at least five major candidates, Republicans, six.

How rare is Shapiro’s feat?  The 2002, 2010, and 2014 Democrat primaries were all contested.  Of course, there are still two months before petitions are circulated.  It is not out of the realm of possibilities a candidate may declare, but with $10 million in Shapiro’s war chest, that candidate better have a big check book.

“A Good Day in Baseball”

If “two out of three ain’t bad,” than three out of four must be good too.  That’s how Republicans faired in four 2021 statewide judicial elections.  Securing victories on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, with Judge Kevin Brobson, Pennsylvania Superior Court with Megan Sullivan Kampf, and Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court with Stacy Wallace, the Pennsylvania GOP heads into 2022 with confidence.

In addition to statewide wins, Bucks County Republicans swept all contests on the ballot, along with school board victories around the commonwealth.

What Didn’t Happen:

Election Issues Continue…

Regardless of one’s opinion on the 2020 election process, it was hardly without issues.  Some of those issues spilled over in the 2021.  After vetoing an election reform bill saying it would “undermine faith in government,” Wolf would later admit to violating election law for the 2021 General Election.  Ironically, had Wolf signed the election bill he vetoed, his violation – asking his wife to drop off his ballot – would have been permitted.

Other issues were reported as well, such as Montgomery County counting undated ballots in the primary, a direct violation of a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling.  Berks County sent out 17,000 mail-in voting instructions to Spanish speaking voters with the wrong return date deadline.  The English instructions had the correct date.  Indiana County made a similar mistake.  Much like COVID-19 restrictions, if progress is not made in 2022 toward election reform, a constitutional amendment is not out of the question in 2023.

Redistricting Continues…

Citing issues with COVID-19, The U.S, Census Bureau announced the data needed to draw new district lines would be delayed.  The data is necessary for the State House and Senate Redistricting Commission to draw new lines, as well as the legislature to vote on congressional districts.  With time not on their side, the map makers went to work with the information they had, then they eventually included the finalized Census data.

One map appears to be set, the state Senate.  The map passed the Legislative Redistricting Commission with a 5-0 vote on December 16.  The new maps likely won’t flip the Senate to Democrat hands but will see the Republicans hold the chamber with a slimmer majority.  The Pennsylvania House on the other hand is another story, leaving Republicans seeing red, but not on the maps.  The map passed on partisan lines, 3-2.  Under the Commission’s plan, 12 Republican incumbents will face off in primaries, compared to two Democrats.  The maps aren’t set yet, a 30-day public comment period is now underway.  Republicans in the House are sure to opine.

The Pennsylvania Congressional lines are drawn by a different process, the legislature votes on a map, and the governor either accepts or rejects it.  Population loss requires Pennsylvania lose a seat, going from 18 to 17 members.  A proposed map was voted from the House State Government Committee on December 15.  The future of the map is on shaky ground.  Wolf recently declared he would not take part in negotiations with the legislature.  Perhaps setting up the state Supreme Court to draw their own map as they did in 2018.  That map resulted in Democrats picking up five seats.

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PA Congressional Redistricting Process Teeters on Edge of Court Challenges

With fewer than 60 days before the Feb. 15 deadline to enact new congressional district maps, efforts to conduct the process in a less partisan and more collegial manner hang by a thread.

Throughout the year, Republican leaders in both the state House and the Senate have promised transparency and public involvement, hoping to pass a map beyond dispute and that Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf would sign so that state courts don’t intrude on the process.

In July, Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), chairman of the House State Government Committee, announced what he called the “most transparent congressional redistricting in Pennsylvania history” through direct citizen involvement in the process. Sen. David Argall (R – Berks/ Schuylkill), chairman of the Senate State Government Committee, has similarly promised to “roll back the hyper-partisan gerrymandering sins of past decades” by “making this redistricting process much more open and transparent.”

However, Democrats have looked upon these comments with skepticism and are so far not impressed by the processes being used.

On Wednesday, an adjusted version of a map drawn by a Lehigh Valley piano teacher and redistricting advocate Amanda Holt was passed on a party-line vote by the House State Government Committee. Holt, a former Republican Lehigh County commissioner, was deeply involved in the state’s map-making a decade ago and led the charge for fairer, less gerrymandered maps.

“The only thing better than a citizen-drawn map is a citizen-drawn map that incorporates the feedback of citizens all across our commonwealth,” Grove said in a statement after the vote. “The minor adjustments made to the preliminary plan reflect changes that were important to Pennsylvanians.”

Yet, a leading Democrat on the committee threw cold water on the vote while foreshadowing arguments Democrats will likely make when a map comes to the full House floor for a final vote.

“We have an opportunity to use a citizen’s map as a vessel,” said Rep. Scott Conklin (D–Centre) in comments before the vote. “But today, what we’re about to do, is we’re going to throw the citizen’s map out and we’re going to amend it again with what the elected officials wanted.”

Grove noted during the committee meeting that the map was 95 percent similar to Holt’s and that changes were made to minimize splitting municipalities among a few other technical corrections.

In the Senate meanwhile, a draft version of a bipartisan map being drawn by Argall and Sen. Sharif Street (D–Philadelphia) has drawn heated feedback from Democrats.

The leaked draft would solidify Democratic U.S, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan’s district in the Philadelphia suburbs. However, it also appears to split Philadelphia into four districts rather than three, as it is now.

That move would take a northern portion of Democratic U.S, Rep. Brendan Boyle’s Philadelphia district and move it into Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick’s district, which is comprised mostly of the Bucks County and a small slice of Montgomery County north of the city. The move would reduce the White population in Boyle’s current district, making a primary challenge from a Black politician, such as Street, more likely.

Democratic political consultant J.J. Balaban told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Any Democratic elected official should be embarrassed to support a map as bad for Democrats as that map is.”

An anonymous national Democratic official who also spoke with The Inquirer went even further, “It’s clear the Republicans have never taken this process seriously and are just running out the clock — it’s time for the court to step in,” in a comment very similar to the claims made in a new lawsuit filed by “voters” with the help of the National Redistricting Action Fund, a group aligned with Democrats.

The unanimous Democratic opposition to the citizen’s map put forward by the house committee and the harsh Democratic criticism of the leaked Senate map show how fragile the desire for compromise is in Harrisburg.

Both chambers of the General Assembly and Wolf must come to a final agreement by Feb. 15 so that candidates hoping to be on the May 18th primary ballots can circulate nomination petitions on time.

As Holt testified, her map was “Based on census data and to not break precincts.

Although Wolf will need to approve the map the legislature puts forward or the map will end up being adjudicated by the courts, he has stated that he will not negotiate.

“No one should be surprised King Wolf doesn’t want to negotiate,” Grove said on Facebook.

State Rep. Andrew Lewis (R-Harrisburg) said, “We’ve got to move this process forward. We’re going to improve this map as we move forward.”

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