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Pa. Supreme Court is about to rule on the state's congressional district map

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As early as tomorrow, Pennsylvania state Supreme Court is expected to issue a verdict about what the new congressional map should look like. On Friday, the court heard oral arguments from both sides. And its decision will determine which political party will have the edge in the critical swing state in November's midterm elections. WITF's Sam Dunklau in Harrisburg has more.

SAM DUNKLAU, BYLINE: Since 2018, Pennsylvania has been evenly split between the major parties. In that time, the state has reliably sent nine Republicans and nine Democrats to represent it in Washington. But that could soon change. Though the Keystone State's population has grown over the last decade, the 2020 U.S. Census uncovered that other states grew faster, which means Pennsylvania will be losing a member of Congress. Samuel Chen a political strategist based in eastern P.A., says since people like him learned the news, he's been asking himself...

SAMUEL CHEN: Where does that seat go? What you see is, you know, places like Florida and Texas picking up seats. And so that is going to increase the likelihood of a Republican flip.

DUNKLAU: That's bad news for Democrats, Chen says, since the party could lose control of the U.S. House this year if more than six lawmakers lose reelection.

CHEN: We've got a very small majority that hangs in the balance. Everyone's looking at Pennsylvania.

DUNKLAU: Especially state lawmakers, who get first dibs at drawing a congressional map each decade. And with Pennsylvania's Statehouse currently controlled by Republicans, they're in the driver's seat. After months of public comment sessions, lawmakers selected a citizen-drawn map, tweaked it and voted it out of the Statehouse. But Democratic Governor Tom Wolf gave it the thumbs down, vetoing the map because a statistical analysis showed it would give Republicans an unfair advantage.

TOM WOLF: The core of our democracy is the expression of each voter and every voter as to what they want our commonwealth to do. And they can't do that if we don't give them a fair map.

DUNKLAU: Republican state Representative Seth Grove, who sponsored the map, argues Democrats never offered a map because they wanted the state Supreme Court to decide.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SETH GROVE: No other member introduced a map in the entire legislative branch. This is it.

DUNKLAU: Voter groups have sued over the deadlock, leaving the state Supreme Court's five Democrat and two Republican justices to make the final call. Those voter groups, along with lawmakers, political parties and statistical experts, offered the court 13 maps. Carol Kuniholm, who leads a redistricting advocacy group that helped draw one of those maps, says she doesn't care if their map is chosen.

CAROL KUNIHOLM: What we want is a map that if voters swing left, the delegation should swing left. And if voters swing right, the delegation should swing right.

DUNKLAU: Lawyer Ben Geffen says he already knows districts have to look a certain way off the bat. They have to have the same number of people, for instance. And they can't split towns or counties up too much.

BEN GEFFEN: You know, if you don't satisfy those legal criteria, you don't even get to be in the beauty pageant. And once you're in the beauty pageant, I think there are a lot of different ways that the court could score it.

DUNKLAU: How well the map allows non-white voters and prisoners to have a say are among them, Geffen says. Chen says candidates and voters are stuck in the lurch.

CHEN: How does a candidate run for an office that they don't know where the boundaries for are? They don't know where to campaign. They don't know who their voters are.

DUNKLAU: But Geffen says Pennsylvania's justices have proven they're up to the task. They drew the state's current map in 2018.

GEFFEN: The court moved swiftly. The court issued a decision that gave Pennsylvania what is, by all metrics, a very fair and competitive map. I don't know why we should expect a different outcome this time around.

DUNKLAU: Pennsylvania's primary election schedule is on hold right now. And it'll stay that way until the court issues a final map.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Dunklau in Harrisburg, Pa.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLAMENTONE'S "AFTERBEACH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.