In a legal longshot, two Pennsylvania state senators and eight members of Congress are challenging the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s redraw of the state’s congressional map. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered the map redrawn after finding that the manipulated districts violated the Pennsylvania Constitution. When legislators and the governor failed to agree on a map, the court consulted with a special master to draw new boundaries. A three-judge federal district court panel will hear the legislators’ challenge this Friday. So, how did we get here?
Pennsylvania has a long and dramatic history with partisan redistricting. In fact, it is an important state in the history of national efforts for redistricting reform. In 2004, in Vieth v. Jublirer, the United States Supreme Court refused to strike down a Pennsylvania congressional map developed entirely by elected Republicans in Pennsylvania, but a majority of the justices agreed that there could be a legal standard demonstrating when federal courts should intervene to overturn a map. Justice Kennedy, in his famous concurrence, challenged the lawyers and federal district courts of America to develop such a standard. This is precisely the motivation behind the congressional redistricting litigation in Wisconsin, Maryland, and North Carolina.
The drama that unfolded in the Pennsylvania capital city of Harrisburg over the past year is a different story, but one that redistricting activists around the country should take note of. It culminated on February 19 in the issuance of a new map for the 2018 midterm elections. This is arguably the first time in Pennsylvania history that citizens will vote in congressional districts not drawn for the purpose of giving one party an advantage.
In January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard the challenge to the 2011 Pennsylvania congressional map, also drawn entirely by elected Republicans in Pennsylvania. The court determined that the map was unconstitutional under a number of clauses in the Pennsylvania Constitution. Common Cause submitted an amicus brief in this case, and the court agreed with the voters. The decision required the state legislature to submit a new map to the governor for approval. If they failed to do so or the governor did not approve the map they submitted, the court itself would draw the map for the 2018 Election.
Governor Wolf rejected the legislature's proposed map, and Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford Law professor who has drawn districts for other states when politicians couldn't agree, drew up a new map that is (finally) constitutional and free of partisan shenanigans.
This map is a total win for the voters of Pennsylvania, regardless of their political party. Under the efficiency gap metric (the subject of the Wisconsin litigation referenced above), the old map had an efficiency gap of 19% in favor of Republicans, making it the second most gerrymandered congressional map in the country. The most gerrymandered map is North Carolina, the state the is the subject of Common Cause v. Rucho.
Estimates of the new Pennsylvania map's efficiency gap hover at around 3% in favor of Republicans. This fairer map will mean that representatives have to work that much harder for votes by actively listening to the people while lessening the influence of big money donors, party leadership, and small, loud, extreme segments of the electorate.
However, this isn't the end of controversial redistricting in Pennsylvania. Unless Pennsylvania passes real reform that permanently takes the duty to redistrict away from the Pennsylvania Legislature, this ordeal could be repeated after the next round of redistricting in 2021.
Fair Districts PA is a coalition of groups working to deliver that permanent reform before redistricting in 2021. You can join them and read about their progress at www.fairdistrictspa.com.
Issues: Voting and Elections