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Time to slice and dice our congressional districts

The results of the much troubled 2020 decennial census are in, and, as feared, Pennsylvania will lose one congressional seat (18 to 17) and with it one electoral vote (20 to 19). Despite the loss, most political observers predict that Pennsylvania will be a key player in the 2024 presidential election.

It continues the decadeslong trend of our loss of representation, even as our population ticks up, but not nearly as much as some of the southern and western states. The 2020 numbers show the nation’s population at 331,449,281 or 7.4% higher than 10 years ago. Many believe this number is a serious undercount because of the COVID-19 pandemic, weather-related issues and nationwide racial demonstrations.

Pennsylvania’s population has been relatively stagnant with growth of only a total of 8% in 50 years to the current 12.8 million.

At one time, going back to the 1920s, when Pennsylvania was the second-largest state in the union next only to New York state, we had 36 House members. Today, we are the fifth most populous after California, Texas, Florida and New York.

Right now, the congressional delegation is split with nine Republicans and nine Democrats. The coming process to reapportion the state and with it the reduction of one legislator has been described by some observers as a “likely bloodbath” with both parties jockeying for advantage.

Texas will gain two seats in the House of Representatives; five states will gain one seat each (Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon); seven states, including ours, will lose one seat each (California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio and West Virginia).

Given the significant population growth in the Lehigh Valley during the past decade and the steady numbers in Carbon and Schuylkill counties, the lost representative will probably come from a central or western county or combination of counties where there has been population loss. The area with the biggest gains will be southeastern Pennsylvania, primarily the Philadelphia suburbs of Montgomery, Chester, Delaware and Bucks counties.

One of the fastest growing counties in the state in 2020 was Monroe, thanks in part to out-of-state relocations because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This reversed a downward trend in the Poconos during the past 10 years after enormous growth in the 1960-2010 period.

The population of Monroe was just 39,567 in 1960, but by 2010 had exploded to 169,842. By contrast, neighboring Carbon County grew much more modestly, from 61,735 to 65,249 during that 50-year stretch.

Detailed figures and demographics associated with the census will not be released until about September because of pandemic-related issues in developing the count, census officials said.

Among the five counties in the Times News region, just Schuylkill has lost population during the half-century period, from 172,027 in 1960 to 148,289 in 2010. Lehigh grew from 227,536 to 349,497, while Northampton went from 201,412 to 297,735.

With the expected growth in the current 7th District (all of Lehigh, Northampton and part of southern Monroe counties), there could be some subtractions of municipalities that are moved to less populous contiguous districts to maintain the mandated “one person, one vote” concept initiated in the 1960s when Earl Warren was chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Of course, this does not mean that the apportionment of U.S. representatives is mathematically perfect. There are striking deviations among the states. Regardless of how small a state’s population is, however, it is entitled to one representative.

The 2010 census set the average population of a house district at 710,767. The most living in one district was in Montana with a population of 994,416; the fewest lived in a Rhode Island district, 527,624.

In our area, there were 731,168 residents in the 7th District; 696,956 in the 8th District, which includes part of Monroe County, and 702,489 in the 9th District, which includes all of Carbon and Schuylkill counties.

The most populous state, California, has 53 legislative districts (soon to be 52); seven states have just one each - Alaska, Delaware, Montana (soon to be two), North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.

In Pennsylvania, the redistricting commission, which is made up of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats and one person chosen to be a nonpartisan arbiter, is given the task to reapportion the districts based on the new 2020 population numbers.

The difference this time around is that although the General Assembly’s two houses are still firmly controlled by Republicans, there is a Democratic governor, Tom Wolf. After the 2011 reapportionment plan was conceived, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett signed off on it.

Because Pennsylvania was branded as one of the most gerrymandered of all states, the Democrat-leaning state Supreme Court struck down the map in 2018, ruling that Republicans gave themselves an outsized advantage. As a result, Democrats won parity - 9 to 9, whereas before it had been 13-5 in the Republicans’ favor.

Redrawing district maps has been a contemporary pain in the neck, and with the hyperpartisan atmosphere that permeates Harrisburg and Washington these days, we can expect nothing less as legislators begin to slice and dice the 2020 numbers.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.