Progress against gerrymandering
Pennsylvania is considered to be one of the most heavily gerrymandered states in the country. After the last census in 2010, Republicans in the House and Senate in Harrisburg had a commanding lead—Gov. Tom Corbett was a Republican, and the PA Supreme Court had a Republican majority.
In Pennsylvania, the congressional districts, and the districts of the state representatives, are drawn up by a commission made up of members appointed by the majority and minority leaders of both parties. The four commissioners then agree on a chair. If the four commissioners can’t agree on a chair the PA Supreme Court appoints the chair, which is what happened in the last redistricting. With Republicans in firm control, it’s not surprising that districts were drawn to heavily favor Republicans.
This is fairly easily done by, among other ways, dividing up Democrats and putting them into nearby safe Republican districts. As it turns out, Republicans did a really fine job of it. In 2014, Republicans won 55.5% of the votes for the House seats in Washington, DC, but they took 13 out of the 18 seats, or 72% of the total.
Next time around there could be a different outcome, because while it seems likely there will still be Republican majorities in the state House and Senate, the Supreme Court is likely to remain controlled by Democrats, and the court will likely appoint the tie-breaking chair of the commission. So, if nothing in the current process changes, redistricting after the 2020 census could easily benefit Democrats.
However, there is a good deal of interest among the public, and at least some interest among the state’s lawmakers, about fixing the gerrymandering issue this year. There is a bill in the state House and another in the Senate that would take the responsibility of drawing districts away from politicians. According to www.fairdistrictspa.com, responsibility would be shifted to an “impartial and independent redistricting commission composed of a politically diverse group of qualified members of the voting public chosen to assure fairness of the process.” Politicians and their family members, as well as political party officials, would be barred from serving on the commission.
This would need to be adopted this year by the legislature as the first step in the process to passing an amendment to the state’s constitution.
And Pennsylvania isn’t the only state with a large amount of gerrymandering taking place. Wisconsin was in a similar situation after the 2010 census and re-drew the election maps in a way that gave Republicans 60% of the congressional seats in 2012, while they drew only 51% of the vote. A federal decision in this matter may render the Pennsylvania constitutional amendment moot.
The Campaign Legal Center (CLC) (www.campaignlegalcenter.org) helped bring a case in federal court on behalf of 12 voters in the state, charging that the only reason the maps were redrawn was to give Republicans a partisan advantage for the rest of the 10-year period until the next redistricting.
In November 2016, a federal judge ruled for the plaintiffs. The state appealed, but a three-judge panel upheld the lower court ruling. The judges wrote, “We find that Act 43 was intended to burden the representational rights of Democratic voters throughout the decennial period by impeding their ability to translate their votes into legislative seats. Moreover, as demonstrated by the results of the 2012 and 2014 elections, among other evidence, we conclude that Act 43 has had its intended effect.” On January 29, the judges ordered that Wisconsin must come up with a new map by November 2017.
The state has a right to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), and officials have indicated they will do just that.
Regarding earlier rulings on the issue the CLC writes, “SCOTUS held that it has the authority and responsibility to decide partisan gerrymandering claims, and in 2006, all nine justices agreed that excessive partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution.
“However, the Court has yet to adopt a standard for determining whether a redistricting plan constitutes a partisan gerrymander.” CLC hopes this litigation leads to a nationwide standard for analyzing gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering has been practiced on both sides of the aisle, but at the moment, according to most analysts, Republicans are benefiting most from the practice. Society as a whole, however, would be the beneficiary if gerrymandering were ended. Given that the case will wind up at SCOTUS, this means that President Trump’s recent Supreme Court nominee deserves extra scrutiny with regard to this issue, by the public and by our elected representatives who are charged with interviewing and confirming him.