Redistricting to take full effect in state House elections
The invisible, politician-drawn boundaries that affect who represents Pennsylvania residents in Harrisburg are different this election.
Why and how they appear the way they do, splitting up cities or covering large swaths of counties, are the result of population shifts and the decennial redistricting process.
After a court rejection and another round of mapmaking, this election cycle is the first in which the lines will affect the state House, where all seats are up for election. Court precedent and a special election mean the lines partly apply in staggered-term Senate races.
The Legislature is likely to remain in Republican control after Nov. 4, though some seats might switch parties, said G. Terry Madonna, pollster and political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. The House is split 111-91 in favor of Republicans with one vacancy; the Senate is split 27-23. Though Republicans in Pennsylvania have benefited from the ability to shape district boundaries, Democrat leaders also are eager to protect their areas, Madonna said.
“Both parties want favorable districts for their own members,” he said.
Getting the maps finalized took the Legislative Reapportionment Commission two attempts and at least $1 million in legal fees from 2012 through this year, records show. The commission included four caucus leaders and a fifth member appointed by the state Supreme Court, which must approve boundaries.
In early 2012, the court rejected the commission's maps, citing too many split municipalities and counties and oddly shaped districts that weren't compact. According to the state constitution: “Unless absolutely necessary, no county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward shall be divided in forming either a senatorial or representative district.”
Once a court approved a second round of boundaries in 2013, state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, saw his 38th Senatorial District shift to cover more suburbs than city wards. The new constituency included a majority of voters represented by Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler. Ferlo, in office since 2002, opted not to seek re-election.
The seat held by Rep. Erin Molchany, D-Mt. Washington, moved across the state to accommodate growing population in the East; her territory meshed with the 36th District. Molchany lost a primary race to longtime Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick.
The party in power can choose to cram the opposition into so-called “safe” districts, or spread them out to avoid a stronghold, said Michael McDonald, a redistricting expert and associate professor at the University of Florida.
To remove politicians from the process, some states such as Arizona and California established citizen-based commissions to take charge of the lines. But favoritism can surface in these systems, too, based on the appointments, McDonald said.
“Even if you have a citizen commission, it does not mean you've totally removed politics from the equation,” he said.
At the federal level, Pennsylvania's congressional maps are considered among the most gerrymandered in the nation, said Michael Li, redistricting counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Five of 18 congressional seats belong to Democrats, though the electorate has about 1.5 million more registered Democratic voters than Republicans, statistics from the Department of State show.
The effect is less competitive elections, Li said. An incumbent's future could come down to a primary in which turnout traditionally is a small percentage of voters, he said. Pennsylvania's closed primaries pushes voters to stick to voting along party lines.
“A handful of voters really are the only ones that matter, and that's really not what should be the case,” Li said.
Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.