Let’s talk about Pennsylvania’s new maps.
The proposed state House and Senate districts unveiled last week will help determine control of Harrisburg and what kind of legislation is advanced — or blocked.
The boundaries aren’t final, and Mark Nordenberg, who chairs the commission that drew the maps, told The Inquirer there have been legitimate questions since their release that could lead to changes before the decennial redistricting process is finished.
Here’s some of what we’ve learned over the last week of reporting on the maps.
The central fight has been over the proposed state House map, which is significantly better for Democrats than the current one.
Based on the partisan makeup of the districts, Republican districts are a narrow majority of the 203 seats, 104-99, according to a detailed data analysis conducted for The Inquirer by the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project. That’s down from 118 GOP districts under the current map.
» READ MORE: Is the new Pa. House map better for Democrats or Republicans? We tested it.
And many of the competitive districts would switch from Republican-leaning to tilting Democratic.
But that hardly means Democrats will end a decade of GOP rule in next year’s elections. The national political environment is expected to be far less friendly to Democrats than in 2020, when Joe Biden narrowly beat Donald Trump. And Republicans still would have won the House then, even under the new map.
While the House map triggered a flurry of GOP attacks, the Senate one unanimously passed the five-member commission.
That’s partly because the Senate map almost entirely avoids pitting incumbents against one another by drawing them into districts together. The changes largely don’t pose major political challenges for incumbents.
That incumbent protection helps explain the bipartisan support, which was largely negotiated by the Senate’s Republican and Democratic leaders, who are on the commission. Many districts are based on the existing ones.
“There is no practical avenue to starting with a totally new map in a commission dominated by caucus leaders whose members live in, and have won elections from, existing districts,” Nordenberg said when introducing the maps.
Both Senate leaders said the map is good for their respective parties.
“Democrats have a path to the majority through this map,” Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) said. “It’s not gonna happen in 2022 or 2023, but it could happen in 2024, because there’s a growing number of districts we’re competing for.”
» READ MORE: Is the new Pa. Senate map better for Democrats or Republicans? We tested it.
In favoring incumbency, the map skews Republican, about 27 seats to 23, according to The Inquirer’s analysis. Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) said the map still looks “promising for Republicans” while also reflecting population shifts.
Some of what looks like incumbent protection actually just reflects how divided the state is, she said.
“A Republican is not going to win in Philadelphia, whether there’s an incumbent in that seat or not,” Ward said. “And a Democrat is not going to win most parts of the central part of Pennsylvania, whether an incumbent or not.”
The Voting Rights Act requires giving communities of color, when possible, the opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice — which usually means creating districts with large proportions of voters of color.
“We heard very compelling testimony at almost every stage of the public hearings that we conducted about the need for more minority representation in both chambers,” Nordenberg said in an interview.
He identified seven specific “minority opportunity districts” in the House map. Those newly drawn districts could mean more lawmakers of color are sent to Harrisburg.
For example, Philadelphia’s new 203rd District, covering Lawndale and part of Olney, would have a population that is 24% Latino, 42% non-Hispanic Black, and 12% Asian. The new 9th District in Northwest Philadelphia would have a non-Hispanic Black population of about 58%. And in Montgomery County, the new 54th District covering Norristown and Conshohocken would have a population that is 22% Latino and 21% non-Hispanic Black.
“One of the things that really stands out about those districts is that they have no incumbents,” Nordenberg said, “which does mean that the minority communities do not have to overcome the incumbent advantage.”
In the Senate, Ward said she agreed to give up a Republican district to create a new Democratic-leaning Lehigh County district that’s 32% Latino and 7% Black. It was one of several compromises on both sides, she said. Pennsylvania has never had a Latino state senator.
At least 12 Republican incumbents in the House are drawn into districts together, according to a House GOP analysis, pitting them against one another in next year’s primary. (State law requires lawmakers to live in their districts.) At least two Democrats would face off in primaries, and four Republican incumbents would be pitted against Democratic incumbents.
Nordenberg said population changes drove the pairings. Districts must be approximately equal in population — “one person, one vote” — and more rural, Republican areas of the state have declined in population or seen anemic growth compared with denser, more Democratic areas, especially suburbs.
Shrinking GOP areas need to have fewer districts, meaning those districts grow in size — ensnaring some nearby incumbents. Nordenberg said he first drew districts without knowing where incumbents lived. Once caucus leaders gave him addresses, he sought to separate lawmakers where he could.
That’s likely to be of little consolation to those facing off against colleagues.
» READ MORE: Pennsylvania Republicans are going on the attack against a new map for state House districts
The new 86th District, for example, draws Republican Reps. John Hershey and Perry Stambaugh together in Juniata and Perry Counties.
“The Commission feels the need to divide my home county of only 24,000 people,” Hershey said Tuesday of Juniata. “While certainly too small for a legislative district, surely our tight-knit community should be kept together.”
One of the challenges in measuring who “wins” with a new political map is that even the basic math requires first making decisions about what data to use. Some use voter registration or recent election results, and different data yield different results.
And the underlying partisan makeup of a district doesn’t necessarily predict the outcome.
The Inquirer’s analysis finds the Senate districts are slightly more favorable to Republicans: There would be 27 GOP districts, compared with 26 in the current map.
Republicans currently hold 29 Senate seats, meaning they already overperform compared to the partisanship of the map itself. That makes it difficult to say whether the new Senate map is better for Republicans or Democrats. The districts are a bit more favorable to Republicans than the current map. But they also lean less toward Republicans than the current makeup of Senate membership.
And voters don’t live randomly dispersed across the state. Democrats tend to cluster in cities and dense suburbs, creating packed districts, while Republicans are more spread out across less dense and rural areas. That means Pennsylvania’s “political geography,” as it’s known, inherently favors Republicans.
When the Princeton Gerrymandering Project had computers draw one million maps using neutral criteria to test that political geography using The Inquirer’s partisanship scores, there were usually about 110 Republican House seats and 93 Democratic ones. There’s a range of possibilities, but most of the time, the computer-drawn maps favored Republicans.
So it’s fair to say the House map favors Republicans. But it’s also fair to say the map creates more Democratic seats than most other maps that are drawn without protecting incumbents or considering partisan data.