Could Pa. be on track for at-large congressional elections?

It’s a topic du jour in Harrisburg right now because lawmakers are on the verge of an impasse over their once-a-decade responsibility to redraw Pennsylvania’s congressional map, and some lawmakers are beginning to trot out what-ifs as the deadlines loom closer.

Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), who leads the House committee in charge of redistricting, has been one of its primary progenitors — using the existence of the old federal law, and the potential chaos of so many at-large elections, in an apparent effort to draw Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, into public negotiations on a GOP-selected map proposal the governor has already said he doesn’t support.

“The federal law clearly articulates, states which do not have a map in place and lose a seat shall have all their congressional delegation run statewide using the same nomination process as the governor,” Grove said at a recent press conference. “If Governor Wolf fails to agree to a congressional map with the General Assembly, this is the reality voters and congressional candidates will have to face.”

At first glance, Pennsylvania seems to be headed for the exact situation this law describes.

The commonwealth lost a congressional seat in the 2020 census, so lawmakers are supposed to draw a new map with 17 seats, instead of the 18 it has had for the last decade, in time for 2022 elections. The state legislature, long controlled by Republicans, is supposed to initiate this redrawing, and then Wolf is supposed to sign off on a plan. So far, they haven’t come anywhere close to an agreement.

On Wednesday, the House passed a map plan that Wolf has signaled he’d veto if it were to reach his desk.

But, even if the loggerheads continue, the prospect of an at-large congressional contest remains unlikely.

The array of federal laws that apply to redistricting, and the legal precedents that govern the process, are much more complicated than Grove — who didn’t respond to a request for an interview — is making them out to be.

That set of 1941 contingencies for congressional map impasses was undermined in 1967 by a new federal law that said representatives must, in every election going forward, “be elected only from districts.” In other words: no at-large elections.

The Congressional Research Service wrote about these laws at length in a 2003 brief, noting that they’re unusual because while the 1967 law seems to explicitly contradict the 1941 one, both have remained on the books.

Researchers wrote that while the 1941 at-large law could still potentially be invoked, it can also be argued that the 1967 update makes it a “dead letter.”

“Further buttressing the dead letter theory,” the service added, “is the 40-year history of active court involvement in redistricting.”

In 1941, when the at-large contingency was introduced, “courts were constrained by years of precedent limiting their entrance into the ‘political thicket’ of redistricting,” the CRS…

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