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Panel gives state House, Senate district maps preliminary OK

December 16, 2021 GMT
House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre holds up maps during a meeting of the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. The commission voted Thursday in favor of new preliminary district maps over sharp objections from the House's Republican leader about how his chamber's district lines would change. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre holds up maps during a meeting of the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. The commission voted Thursday in favor of new preliminary district maps over sharp objections from the House's Republican leader about how his chamber's district lines would change. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre holds up maps during a meeting of the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. The commission voted Thursday in favor of new preliminary district maps over sharp objections from the House's Republican leader about how his chamber's district lines would change. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission voted Thursday in favor of new preliminary district maps over sharp objections from the House’s Republican leader, as a large increase in the state’s minority population helped shape big changes.

The maps also reflect general population changes in the past decade, which have favored Democratic-leaning areas in the southeast, cities and suburbs, as more conservative areas in northern and western Pennsylvania lost population or grew more slowly.

The panel voted 5-0 for the Senate plan and 3-2 for the House plan, with both Republicans opposed to it.

The maps of 203 House seats and 50 Senate seats could have a dramatic effect on entrenched Republican majorities in the state Legislature. Republicans effectively drew the existing district maps in the presidential battleground state where Democrats hold a registration edge of 4 million to the GOP’s 3.4 million.

Drawing a new map is a pivotal moment in the once-in-a-decade redistricting process, required by the state constitution to account for population shifts in the 2020 Census. Its design will reverberate politically for years to come.

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The vote triggers a 30-day period of public comment and objections. The commission must then produce a final map, after which legal challenges can go to the state Supreme Court.

At the commission meeting, the chairman, Mark Nordenberg, the former University of Pittsburgh chancellor who was chosen as chairman by the Democratic-majority state Supreme Court, said both of the new maps still lean Republican.

He attributed that to so many registered Democrats living in a tight cluster in southeastern Pennsylvania, and a Republican political advantage embedded in maps over time. But, he said, it is politically impossible to start with a new map when the commission’s other four members are partisan caucus leaders in each chamber.

Nordenberg said it is an “intuitive democratic ideal that attracting about 50% of the popular vote also ought to mean winning about 50% of the contested seats.”

The maps create eight districts — seven in the House, one in the Senate, Nordenberg said — that don’t have any incumbent and which have heavy concentrations of racial minorities. That should create the opportunity for racial minorities to get elected, he said.

“There is no incumbent advantage that will have to be overcome in any of these districts, which should give minority communities residing in them a special opportunity,” he said.

That will mean splitting a number of cities, including Allentown, in the Senate. Meanwhile, new districts are being created in Philadelphia, Montgomery County and the city of Lancaster, all areas that favor Democrats.

House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, said the maps reflect both geographic shifts and that the number of Black, Hispanic, Asian and multiracial people in the state grew by more than 800,000 in the past decade, while the white population dropped by about 540,000.

“This preliminary House map is representative of the commonwealth as it is today and allows for equal participation in the electoral process,” McClinton said, saying it “substantially corrects” decades of gerrymandering.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, disagreed, describing it as a partisan gerrymander and signaled a possible court challenge.

“Radical change is a problem, when the radical change is rationalized by politics,” Benninghoff said, calling the map “a danger to our system of government.”

House Republicans said the preliminary map would pit incumbent Republicans against each other in at least six districts, but just one intraparty matchup for Democrats.

Meanwhile, four districts that would pit incumbent Democrats and Republicans against each other had substantially more registered Democratic voters, the House GOP said.

Nordenberg said population changes will inevitably affect incumbents, “though that was not our goal,” he said.

Republicans currently hold a 113-90 House majority and a 29-21 Senate majority.

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave the House map a “C” for partisan fairness, but an “F” for competitiveness, meaning few swing seats, and projected about 102 Democratic-leaning seats. A House majority requires 102 seats.

The Senate map got an “A” for partisan fairness from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, but a “C” for competitiveness. It projected a split chamber.

The preliminary Senate map aims at what Democrats saw as the most extreme gerrymanders created by Republicans in the existing map that helped defeat Democratic incumbents in Johnstown and Harrisburg.

It would remove heavily Republican areas added to those districts, taking Bedford County out of the Johnstown-based district and Perry County out of the Harrisburg-based district. Both seats are currently held by Republicans.

Meanwhile, the map would put growing Monroe County into its own district, instead of being split in what Democrats saw as a Republican attempt to carve out a favorable new district on the existing map. It also would unite Scranton and Wilkes-Barre in one district, and leaving Wilkes-Barre’s current senator, Democrat-turned-independent John Yudichak, in a district with Republican Lisa Baker.

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, backed the preliminary Senate map, but said she expected corrections before it becomes final. She voted for it to move the process along, since 2022 primary election deadlines are approaching, she said.

The existing Republican-drawn maps have been in force since 2014’s elections.

During that time, Republicans have held majorities in both chambers — including some of the biggest majorities in a half-century — while Democrats won more statewide races, 19 to 11.