This article is part of a year-long reporting project focused on relocation and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. This is made possible by the support of Spotlight PA members and Votebeata project focused on electoral integrity and access to voting rights.
HARRISBURG — Lawmakers responsible for drawing Pennsylvania’s new political maps have officially exceeded a deadline set by the Wolf administration to keep the May primary election on track, causing confusion among voters, candidates and election officials.
Nationwide, the new election process got off to a slow start. Because of the pandemic, the US Census Bureau was late in releasing the results of its decade-long survey, and lawmakers didn’t have access to clean, usable data until late October.
Still, Pennsylvania is far behind most states in completing its new congressional and legislative maps. In addition to the census delay, lawmakers attribute the slow process to an increased number of public hearings and outreach efforts.
Meanwhile, advocates of increased transparency on the redistribution of boroughs have criticized officials for not releasing the first maps sooner and holding public hearings before the proposals were released.
Here’s what could happen now that the January 24 deadline has passed:
What is the January 24 deadline and why was it set?
In June and December of last year, then-Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid told those responsible for preparing the congressional and legislative maps that the State Department needed the final versions by Jan. 24 in order to organize the May primary election without major problems.
While the primary is scheduled for May, preparations for the election begin much earlier. Major party candidates must collect enough signatures from residents in their district between February 15 and March 8 to vote.
But without definitive congressional and legislative districts, potential candidates don’t have all the information they need to decide who to run for. However, you can start collecting signatures before the boundaries are set.
District returning officers, meanwhile, have to start preparing poll workers and ballots without basic knowledge.
“We can have conflicts anywhere and we can fight over facilities and stuff like that with poll workers,” said Forrest Lehman, Lycoming County elections director. “The basic infrastructure of your choice 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 a choice.”
What is the status of the congress ticket?
The state Senate finally voted on the congressional card Monday, passing it by a 29:20.
It will now be forwarded to Governor Tom Wolf for consideration. The Democrat has announced that he will veto the map in its current form.
It is likely that the state courts will choose the final card. The Commonwealth Court previously said it would take over the process if Wolf and the GOP-controlled legislature don’t reach an agreement by Jan. 30.
Court-approved parties — including Wolf, leading Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature, and groups of concerned citizens — must submit up to two proposed cards by the end of Jan. 24. The Commonwealth Court will hold hearings to consider it on Thursday and Friday and could select a card as early as this weekend.
An appeal to the Supreme Court is likely, further delaying the process.
What about the legal ones?
The five-member panel responsible for creating the House and Senate maps is currently making changes after a month-long public comment period. The Legislative Reasportionment Commission has until February 18 to publish and vote on the final versions.
Thereafter, any person may file a challenge to one or both cards directly with the state Supreme Court within 30 days.
What will the State Department do now that the deadline has passed?
That’s not entirely clear.
When asked about the impact of missing the January 24 deadline on the election schedule, a State Department spokesman for Spotlight PA referred only to Degraffenreid’s letters.
Three county election directors who spoke to Spotlight PA said they weren’t sure what would happen next as the State Department said little. But they prepare as much as possible.
“I think most directors would like a solid answer because we’re planning on an end date,” said Tim Benyo, Lehigh County director of elections. “If it’s going to change, the sooner we know when that end date is, the better, as it affects all the different steps in the process.”
what could happen now What happened in the past?
The legislature and Wolf could postpone the first date. That happened in 2020, when the primary was pushed back from April 28 to June 2 because of the pandemic.
That seems unlikely this year as Republican leaders oppose the idea and Democrats see it as a last resort.
Lawmakers’ unwillingness to postpone the first date is cited in a new legal challenge being brought by Pennsylvanians living in legislative districts that have seen high population growth over the past decade.
The lawsuit, filed in Commonwealth Court last week, argues that these shifts in population render the current maps useless as they reduce representation and create overcrowded districts. The petitioners are asking the court to adopt a new election calendar that takes into account forthcoming legal challenges to the maps.
Legal challenges to the House and Senate maps cannot be brought until they are completed in February, but observers of the redistribution expect there will be lawsuits.
Candidates for legislative office could also be instructed to run with the current cards, as they were a decade ago.
In January 2012, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the new House and Senate maps approved by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission and ordered the panel to redraw them. The 2001 cards were used in primary school that year, with litigation lasting until spring 2013.
The current, outdated maps can be used for general elections, but not for those of the US House of Representatives. Due to sluggish population growth, Pennsylvania will lose one of its 18 congressional seats, making the current map impossible to use.
A senior Republican lawmaker involved in the redistribution process suggested that in the absence of a new congressional card, an obscure federal law would direct the state to hold general elections for the 17 seats. However, researchers and legal experts are skeptical that this would happen.
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