Republicans slam Wolf’s redistricting commission
HARRISBURG, PA — Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, on November 29 established a commission to study the redistricting process, and specifically to come up with suggestions as to how the process can be changed to reduce gerrymandering. The Pennsylvania State Supreme Court (PSSC) ruled early this year that some congressional federal districts in the state were so gerrymandered—drawn in a way that favored one political party over another—that they violated fair election guarantees enshrined in the state’s constitution.
The Wolf resolution establishing the commission said, in part, “Pennsylvania residents have overwhelmingly expressed their desire for an independent, non-partisan redistricting commission to oversee the legislative redistricting process.”
Republicans in the state House and Senate immediately attacked the governor for establishing the commission with no input from other elected state officials.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman and House Majority Leader-elect Brian Cutler issued a statement that said, “With no input from the General Assembly, the Governor issued an executive order where he turned his back on both the state and federal constitutions and embarked on another go-it-alone strategy. The Governor has created a commission that ignores large swaths of the commonwealth, specifically rural communities, and charged commission members with a responsibility that he does not have the authority to give.”
The Republicans say that the U.S. constitution gives the General Assembly the responsibility for redistricting federal congressional and state senate and house districts after the federal census is completed every 10 years. “The governor can grandstand on redistricting all he wants,” the party wrote in a statement. “We will continue to do the real work of examining the redistricting process in a manner that is constitutionally sound and will produce fair maps through a fair process.”
The last time the general assembly went through the redistricting process, Republicans were in control of the House and Senate, and there were a majority of Republican Judges sitting on the PSSC. The PSSC gets involved in the redistricting process when Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on who should serve as the chair of the redistricting committee with a tie-breaking vote; in 2011, the PSSC appointed the chair.
The Republican House and Senate leaders, along with the Republican court-appointed chair, created a map that resulted in Republicans winning 13 out of the state’s 18 federal congressional seats in three subsequent elections, in a state where registered Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans.
This year, the PSSC, which now has a Democratic majority, ruled that map was unconstitutional because it diluted the votes of Democrats by packing them into, or forcing them out of, computer-generated districts meant to favor Republicans. The court said that practice violated the Equal Elections Clause of the state constitution. The decision had an impact only on federal congressional seats, but not on state House and Senate seats.
The next census is due in 2020, with the redistricting process likely taking place in 2021. This time around there will almost certainly be a Democratic majority on the PSSC because there are currently five democrats on the seven-judge panel, and none of their terms expire before 2023. If the redistricting process does not change, Democratic justices on the court will be in a position to help Democrats create a map that favors their party, just as the judges helped Republicans in 2011.