Philly redistricting 101: What to know about the city’s fast-tracked political mapmaking

The process will set boundaries used for the next decade.

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Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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Philadelphia’s political map is on the verge of changing, as City Council this week finalized new borders for each of the city’s 10 councilmanic districts. Once signed off by the mayor, the districts they’ve drawn will be the legal standard.

That’s redistricting: the process of drawing new maps to determine which areas elected politicians will be representing. This happens every decade when census numbers come out, and is meant to make sure every resident has equal representation. It happens at the state and federal levels, too.

The whole thing can be arcane and wonky — which might be why City Council thought they could rush it through without much notice.

But when Philadelphians got their first chance to offer feedback on Jan. 26, they had plenty to say. The general tone of testimony was exasperation and disappointment, with complaints ranging from the inaccessible drafting process to prison gerrymandering to communities split between multiple districts.

The second hearing on Feb. 2 featured fewer witnesses, but the tenor of the comments was the same. After fielding concerns about lines drawn and amended largely out of public view, City Council promptly approved its amended map without further discussion. On Feb. 10, the amended map was passed unanimously, two days before the deadline for action.

The redistricting process is taking place around the nation with varying degrees of controversy, which often hinges on the process chosen for writing new maps.

Redistricting can be many things, but it’s rarely easy. Crafting the geographic markers of political representation is essential to representative democracy, and liable to the political hijinks that often accompany such important duties. In Philly, lawmakers have gone for months without pay over redistricting, and Pennsylvania’s congressional maps are so contested that they’re going to be decided by the state Supreme Court.

Want to stay informed? With the city’s new map being created mostly behind closed doors, there’s plenty to explore. Here’s your cheat sheet to redistricting in Philadelphia.

How often does redistricting happen?

Per the Home Rule Charter, a redrawn map based on fresh Census data is to be approved by City Council six months after the federal population information is released. On August 12, 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau released redistricting data for all states based on the 2020 Census, starting the clock for the adoption of a new District map for the city of Philadelphia.

This map will be the political map for three election cycles — 2023, 2027, and 2031 — which explains the significance of the drafting and adoption process. Once the districts are finalized, only a select few changes can be made in regards to how they’ll function.

The city charter also states that “if the Council shall have failed to redistrict the City as herein required, the councilmembers shall not receive any further salaries until the Council shall have passed … a redistricting ordinance.”

So while there’s no legal penalty for mapmaking past the six-month mark, this provision might help explain why the Feb. 12 deadline was seen as non-negotiable.

Who’s in charge of the redistricting process?

At the federal level, congressional districts are crafted by the Pa. legislature through the Republican-controlled State Government Committee, which saw its proposed map vetoed by Governor Tom Wolf, and taken up by the Pa. Supreme Court

For state districts in Pennsylvania, this work is done by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, or LRC, a panel that composes state House and Senate maps. The LRC approved its maps by a vote of 4-1, maps that are open to legal challenges for the next month.

In the city, City Council must vote to approve new district maps, but the process is formally overseen by the council president, currently Darrell Clarke. On Jan. 20, Council Majority Leader Cherelle Parker introduced the relevant legislation, Bill No. 220003, on Clarke’s behalf.

Now, because Clarke’s office has the responsibility to present the maps doesn’t mean that the formation of new districts is entirely up to him. In fact, the bulk of comments at the first hearing noted the lack of public involvement in the process. One witness, a member of the statewide grassroots political organization One PA, tidily summed up the concern about civic engagement, saying, “Having an input in our everyday lives shouldn’t be a question.”

Pat Christmas, policy director for the good government group the Committee of Seventy, has echoed that sentiment in his work on redistricting. While noting that all 17 Councilmembers have the duty to vote for or against the map, Christmas was sure to add that “this particular process has been dictated by the council president.”

Is allowing time for public comment required?

The maps are approved via legislation, which is always required to include time for public comment, according to the city charter.

Public hearings on bills are to be advertised in the three city newspapers with the largest circulation at least five days before the hearing, as ordained by a 2009 amendment to the city charter. Hearings are open every time City Council deliberates on a matter, including the session where the bill is up for final consideration.

For manners as crucial as redistricting, many jurisdictions provide more opportunities for civilian input, even when not mandated to do so. For example, Erie County’s charter includes the District Revision Commission — a body appointed by majority vote by the County Council — which held a meeting open to the public last November.

Advocacy groups like the Committee of Seventy and Northeast Against Racism have pressed for more effort to get input from Philadelphians, while organizations like Fair Districts PA are operating on a state level.

What makes redistricting difficult?

Each district encompasses multiple neighborhoods, making the respective councilmember the point person for queries, requests, and complaints. When a neighborhood is split between multiple districts it can dilute the impact that residents have, as they would have to reach out to multiple council members and have their representatives come to an agreement to get movement on an issue.

“If a neighborhood is split across multiple districts, they will probably have a more difficult time advocating around the sort of land use issues that matter to them, whether it’s a zoning variance, a land sale, or any other matter that’s relevant to that community,” said Christmas.

Additionally, the map that Clarke initially proposed seemed to violate the “one person, one vote” principle, by not adhering to the requirement that each district have roughly the same amount of people. Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr.’s 4th District was 10.2% smaller in population than the 6th District, formerly represented by Bobby Henon, a flaw first reported by the Inquirer. The deviation was legally untenable, To fix it, the 4th District was adjusted, enlarged slightly to include a portion of Brewerytown that had previously been tacked onto the 3rd District.

What about so-called prison gerrymandering, where does that fit in?

This redistricting cycle has seen a heightened focus on prison gerrymandering. Prison gerrymandering is a phenomenon of mass incarceration, where incarcerated people are included in the population count of the area they’re being held as opposed to the area where they resided prior to incarceration. The boost in population count often gives localities with carceral institutions more political power, with incarcerated “constituents” serving as the numerical justification.

Prison gerrymandering has already been addressed by the LRC, who voted last August to no longer count many state prisoners as residents of the districts where they’re incarcerated, but as residents of the districts where they originally lived instead.

In Philly, that dynamic is mirrored in the city’s jail complex on State Road, in the 6th District. Due to its placement, the 6th District’s population was boosted by nearly 5,000 people, in line with the count taken during the last Census. While the state level prisoner-adjusted data has existed for months now, Christmas explained that addressing the city level data would take some work.

“The city adjusted data would have to be crunched. That would require the Kenney administration to go through their records for the individuals who were up there in the State Road facilities during the 2020 Census. For each one of them, check their home or last known address, take them out of either of those two precincts and then put them back in their home precinct wherever that is in the city of Philadelphia.”

After it was brought up time and time again through both public hearings, Council president Clarke singled out prison gerrymandering, saying that it was among the select issues that could be addressed after the map had passed.

Council is allowed to reopen already-passed bills, and Clarke’s staff has begun reaching out to vendors who can do the work of reallocating prisoners, according to a spokesperson from the council president’s office.

What controversies have arisen in the past?

Before maps were redrawn in 2011, Philadelphia had one of the most gerrymandered municipal maps in the country, due to a chaotic redistricting process in 2001. That go-around, city council deliberated over the map for five months longer than the allotted six months, with disputes over how to divide Center City and growing populations in Lower Northeast Philly dragging out the process.

Council members went without pay for those five months, and Rick Mariano — the representative of the 7th District at the time — was convicted and served time for taking bribes to pay off credit card debt during that period.

The end result was a blatantly gerrymandered map, which was amended considerably after the 2010 Census.

Today, the clearest controversy over the redistricting process has been the lack of consultation between Council President Clarke and the public at large. The good news is that better models for the process are happening across the state, according to Christmas.

The LRC is an appointed body required to draft a preliminary map, and have a 30 day public feedback window on them. For Christmas they’ve “gone above and beyond what the Constitution requires, enfolding dozens of public hearings and meetings about their process, both before and after they released a map.”

The second good example is in Steel City, as the Pittsburgh city council sets up an advisory council to handle redistricting which also consults with the public.

For any of these measures to be a requirement in Philly, there would need to be reforms to the city charter.

The appropriate time for public consultation was never utilized in the 2022 redistricting process. The bulk of people at both hearings told the city council that opening the process to feedback with less than a month before the deadline was simply insufficient, a claim that Christmas concurs with.

“In a meaningful public engagement process, it takes weeks or more likely months to have those conversations.”

Is there a redistricting map that can please everyone?

The short answer is no.

Redistricting is a complex process, and with a city as segmented by neighborhoods as Philly, district splits are sure to leave some interest groups disappointed.

“There’s no map that can be of equal population between districts, not split any communities whatsoever, and have compact districts with the amount of contiguous parts. Any political map involves tradeoffs,” said Christmas, “and in a sense there will be winners and losers in any given map. But we can and we should be very clear about what the goals are.”

One goal that the Committee of Seventy has identified, through consulting with civic and community leaders, is maintaining “communities of interest.” For Christmas, the term denotes “predominantly neighborhoods first, and then ethnic and language groups, and then business corridors.”

How can I get involved?

The 2022 redistricting process is all but over, save possible changes addressing prison gerrymandering.

If you’re looking ahead to the next go around, many grassroots organizations and neighborhood groups are attuned to the redistricting process. To list them all would be nigh impossible, but there are ways to get a snapshot of these groups. The Committee of Seventy wrote a preliminary report on public input regarding redistricting in Philly, with a long list of organizations who signed on supporting their findings, including Urban Affairs Coalition, Amistad Law Project, League of Women Voters of Philadelphia, and multiple neighborhood associations

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