Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA
This article is part of a yearlong reporting project focused on redistricting and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It is made possible by the support of Spotlight PA members and Votebeat, a project focused on election integrity and voting access.
HARRISBURG — The lawmakers in charge of drawing Pennsylvania’s new political maps have officially blown a deadline set by the Wolf administration to keep the May primary on track, sowing confusion among voters, candidates, and election administrators.
The redistricting process got off to a sluggish start nationwide. Because of the pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau was late in publishing the results from its decennial survey, and lawmakers did not have access to clean, usable data until late October.
Still, Pennsylvania is far behind most states in finalizing its new congressional and legislative maps. In addition to the census delay, lawmakers have attributed the slow process to an increased number of public hearings and outreach.
Advocates for increased transparency in redistricting, meanwhile, have criticized those in charge for not releasing initial maps earlier and hosting public hearings before the proposals were released.
Here’s what could happen next now that the Jan. 24 deadline has come and gone:
What is the Jan. 24 deadline, and why was it set?
In June and December last year, then-acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid told those in charge of drawing the congressional and legislative maps that the Department of State needed finalized versions by Jan. 24 in order to organize the May primary without major issues.
While the primary is scheduled for May, preparations for the election begin much earlier. Major party candidates have from Feb. 15 to March 8 to collect enough signatures from residents in their district to get on the ballot.
But without finalized congressional and legislative districts, potential candidates don’t have all the information they need to decide on a run. They can, however, begin collecting signatures before the boundaries are set.
County election directors, meanwhile, have to begin preparing poll workers and ballots without essential knowledge.
“We can have conflicts all over the place and be scrambling for facilities and same with the poll workers,” Forrest Lehman, Lycoming County’s director of elections, said. “The basic infrastructure of your election is a place for people to go in and do their thing and the poll workers to help them. You don’t have that, you don’t have an election.”
What is the status of the congressional map?
The state Senate took a final vote on the congressional map Monday, passing it 29-20.
It will now be sent to Gov. Tom Wolf for consideration. The Democrat has said he would veto the map in its current form.
It’s likely the state courts will pick the final map. Commonwealth Court previously said it would take over the process if Wolf and the GOP-controlled legislature failed to reach an agreement by Jan. 30.
Parties approved by the court — including Wolf, the top Republicans and Democrats in the legislature, and groups of concerned citizens — have until the end of Jan. 24 to submit up to two proposed maps. Commonwealth Court will hold hearings on Thursday and Friday to consider them and could pick a map as soon as this weekend.
An appeal to the state Supreme Court is likely, further delaying the process.
What about the legislative ones?
The five-person panel in charge of drawing the state House and Senate maps is currently making changes after a month-long public comment period. The Legislative Reapportionment Commission has until Feb. 18 to release and vote on final versions.
After that, any person is able to bring a challenge to one or both of the maps directly to the state Supreme Court within 30 days.
What will the Department of State do now that the deadline is blown?
That’s not entirely clear.
When asked about the effect of missing the Jan. 24 deadline on the election schedule, a spokesperson for the Department of State would only refer Spotlight PA back to Degraffenreid’s letters.
Three county election directors who spoke to Spotlight PA said they’re unclear on what will happen next with little communication from the state department. But they are preparing as much as possible.
“I think most directors would like to have a solid answer, because we plan for an end date,” Tim Benyo, Lehigh County’s director of elections, said. “If it’s going to change, the sooner we know when that end date is the better because it affects all the different steps in the process.”
What could happen now? What has happened in the past?
The legislature and Wolf could move the primary date. That happened in 2020, when the primary was delayed from April 28 until June 2 because of the pandemic.
That appears unlikely to happen this year, with Republican leaders opposed to the idea and Democrats viewing it as a last resort.
The legislature’s unwillingness to move the primary date is cited in a new legal challenge brought by Pennsylvanians who live in legislative districts that saw high population growth over the past decade.
The suit, filed last week in Commonwealth Court, argues that these population shifts render the current maps unusable as they diminish representation and create overcrowded districts. The petitioners are asking the court to adopt a new election calendar that accounts for forthcoming legal challenges to the maps.
Legal challenges to the state House and Senate maps can’t be brought until they are finalized in February, but redistricting observers expect there to be lawsuits.
Candidates for legislative office could also be directed to run using the current maps, like they were a decade ago.
In January 2012, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the new state House and Senate maps adopted by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission and ordered the panel to redraw them. The 2001 maps were used in the primary that year, with the legal battle lasting until spring 2013.
Using the current, outdated maps is possible for legislative elections but not for ones for the U.S. House of Representatives. Due to sluggish population growth, Pennsylvania will lose one of its 18 congressional seats, making it impossible to use the current map.
One leading Republican lawmaker involved with the redistricting process suggested that, in the absence of a new congressional map, an arcane federal law would direct the state to hold at-large elections for the 17 seats. However, researchers and legal experts are skeptical that this would occur.
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