The case for new Pennsylvania districts

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on February 8, issued a 138-page document explaining its earlier decision that the Congressional maps drawn by the Republican-dominated state legislature in 2011 must be redrawn before the next election. The court wrote, in short, that the districts were so gerrymandered that they violated Free and Equal Elections Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Much of the court’s decision was based on expert testimony regarding the drawing of election districts, particularly from Dr. Jowei Chen, who holds research positions on the topic in three different universities.

To analyze the 2011 plan, Chen use a computer to create 500 different district plans of the state using criteria that are traditionally used for redistricting: “population equality; contiguity; compactness; absence of splits within municipalities, unless necessary; and absence of splits within counties, unless necessary.”

There are 67 counties in Pennsylvania. In the 500 plans Chen created, the maximum number of split counties is 16, and in some cases there were as few as 11. In the 2011 plan 28 counties were split. As for keeping municipalities whole, splits under Chen’s 500 maps ranged from a total of 40 to 58. In the 2011 plan, there are splits in 68 municipalities.

Chen concluded the 2011 plans “significantly subordinated the traditional districting criteria of avoiding county splits and avoiding municipal splits. It shows us that the [2011 Plan] split far more counties, as well as more municipalities, than the sorts of plans that would have arisen under a districting process following traditional districting principles in Pennsylvania.”

The court wrote, “prior to 1992, no municipalities in Pennsylvania were divided among multiple congressional districts, the 2011 Plan divides 68, or 2.66%, of Pennsylvania’s municipalities between at least two Congressional districts.”

This might not seem like a lot, but it was enough to get Republicans 13 out of state’s total of 18 congressional seats in the last two elections. The court noted that in the 2016 election, Democrats won their five seats with the winners picking up an average of 73.6% of the votes, while Republicans won their 13 seats win an average of 63.4% of the votes.

The 18 individuals who joined the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters lawsuit against the state said their rights had been violated. Justice Thomas Todd wrote, “William Marx, a resident of Delmont in Westmoreland County, testified that he is a registered Democrat, and that, under the 2011 Plan, he lives in the 12th Congressional District, which is represented by Congressman Keith Rothfus, a Republican. Marx testified that Congressman Rothfus does not represent his views on, inter alia, taxes, healthcare, the environment, and legislation regarding violence against women, and he stated that he has been unable to communicate with him. Marx believes that the 2011 Plan precludes the possibility of having a Democrat elected in his district.”

The Commonwealth Court, which ruled on the case in December 2017, before it was appealed to the Supreme Court, essentially dismissed the expert testimony and ruled against the petitioners saying that there is no right to a “nonpartisan, neutral redistricting process.”

The Supreme Court saw the matter differently. Justice Todd wrote, “Specifically, partisan gerrymandering dilutes the votes of those who in prior elections voted for the party not in power to give the party in power a lasting electoral advantage. By placing voters preferring one party’s candidates in districts where their votes are wasted on candidates likely to lose (cracking), or by placing such voters in districts where their votes are cast for candidates destined to win (packing), the non-favored party’s votes are diluted. It is axiomatic that a diluted vote is not an equal vote, as all voters do not have an equal opportunity to translate their votes into representation.”

And that, he wrote, is a violation of the Free and Equal Elections Clause of the state constitution.

On February 8, Republican leaders submitted new maps to Gov. Tom Wolf, who rejected the maps on February 13. He said,  “The analysis by my team shows that the map submitted by Republican leaders is still a gerrymander. Their map clearly seeks to benefit one political party, which is the essence of why the court found the current map to be unconstitutional.” If Wolf and Republicans don’t agree on a map by February 15, the state court will step in and draw or choose one submitted by the parties.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule on gerrymandering cases in three other states. It’s not clear how all of this will play out in Pennsylvania or the rest of the country, but it is clear that a growing number of voters want fair districts everywhere.


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