Op/Ed: The new PA State redistricting is the fairest it’s ever been

By Matt Han, Special to The Times

Even in today’s polarized and tense political climate, almost all Americans regardless of political party/orientation agree that fair maps and the elimination of gerrymandering are vital in creating a fair and democratic country. While most issues require opposing viewpoints and often cannot be resolved, the issue of fair representation is one that is not impossible to overcome. Today, we expect so many things from our governments: from big to small we task our elected officials and our courts to provide us with a variety of services as well as expect them to uphold our individual desires. Whilst it is true that there is a lot that our government must juggle and decide upon, at bare minimum all citizens should have the right to have their vote count in an equal and meaningful way.

As a current junior at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA, I’ve found my calling into politics and am extremely passionate about government and my community. Taking both AP US Government and AP Comparative Government at school and being able to experience politics in my own life, I have been fortunate enough to grow in knowledge and have especially taken interest in creating a democratic and fair community. Interning as a campaign intern and being a constituent for my local House Rep Melissa Shusterman (PA 157), I am a proud member of the     Pennsylvania community and am impacted by the decisions made by my local representatives. I am especially intrigued by the current PA State House plans and the current redistricting process occurring there today.

Political legitimacy is one of the core pillars in the establishment of democracy in America and across the world. In democratic systems, nations and states gain this legitimacy through fair and equal elections at the ballot box, with every vote being represented equally. From the national to local level however America has struggled in creating these equal opportunities nationwide and millions of Americans (especially minorities) have subsequently suffered. In our state of Pennsylvania, it is imperative to create equal representation for everyone and allow all voices to be heard through equality in the PA House and Senate lines.

The current State House districting plan leaves much to be desired. In 2020, 90% of Pennsylvania’s legislature was white and 73% of legislators were male while around 25% of the population were people of color and women were in the majority. Every 10 years the US census helps to determine the new components of the redistricting lines and the necessary steps that must be taken. And while the census reflects that the state is changing, the current House lines do not- a problem that must be addressed.

In attempts to tackle this problem the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC) have submitted their own maps for consideration on selection. These new maps are one of the fairest created in recent years and have eliminated many of the problems with the old maps, starting with addressing demographic concerns. The old PA legislature lines have been riddled with a multitude of pressing concerns regarding this issue. LRC Chairman Mark A. Nordenberg addressed the changing demographics problem in a hearing on Jan 6th explaining that an “ongoing shift in population from rural to urban areas, particularly from the north and west to the south and east” and an “increase in Pennsylvania’s non-white population” are both factors the new maps have considered. The new maps have created 7 new minority opportunity districts where there is no incumbent, which allows minorities, especially African Americans, to gain representation. The LRC’s House map has also made six Asian American and Pacific Islander influence districts where the AAPI population is greater than 15% which will allow for more Asian representation as well.

More than just creating reflective maps of the current populations, the new maps are just more equitable in general. The new maps are LACRA compliant as assessed by Fair Districts PA meaning that no precincts are split, and no county is split more than mathematically necessary. The new LRC maps split 0 precincts in comparison to 86 in the current house and split only 45 counties with a total of 184 splits compared to the current house map which splits 50 counties with a total of 221 splits. All lines in the proposed plan are continuous in contrast to the current maps which aren’t despite continuity being a requirement in the constitution. In analysis done by Dave’s Redistricting, a non-partisan district review, the LRC maps received a higher score in compactness and minority representation with the LRC maps seeing a 13-point increase in compactness and a 6-point increase in representation. The PlanScore project, another map analysis group, was able to assess under 5 different metrics the mean-median difference of political leanings of the different maps. The current house plans have a mean median difference of 4.9% in favor of Republicans, while the new plan would shrink that percentage to 1.0% in mean difference (still in the GOP’s favor.)

Yes, the LRC maps aren’t perfect. For starters, the new maps still give Republicans a slight advantage as seen by the data shown by PlanScore. The Princeton gerrymandering Project explains that the new maps “by metrics of partisan bias, mean-median difference, and packed wins, still favors Republicans.” However, compared to the current lines the maps are one of the fairest seen in a considerable number of years and are certainly an upgrade over the current maps in the House. Despite this the GOP has pushed back on the passage of the maps and has questioned the validity of the LRC maps even with its right-leaning favorability.

With the maps being voted on by the LRC and approved (in a 4-1 vote), its next steps are toward the courts after the plan was challenged by GOP lawmakers. It’s crucial that Pennsylvania and the Courts if needed will make the right choice for the future and implement the new maps. Overall, the LRC map can make a better Pennsylvania heading into 2022 and beyond with fairer districts and equal representations among constituents. The maps are more compact and split less counties and no precincts. They create fair and competitive elections that will give no party a significant advantage. They allow minority voices to be represented in policy and decision making. Creating fair maps is the first step to creating a more democratic state and a politically legitimate country for everyone. Thus, noting the clear improvements of the plan and its importance, the state courts should consider implementing the plan over the current plan for the 2022 elections.

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