Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, rejected a Republican-drawn map that purported to remedy the current partisan gerrymander of the state’s congressional districts. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that those districts unlawfully favored Republicans under the state constitution and ordered the elected branches to draw up a new map. Wolf’s repudiation of Republican legislators’ proposed plan all but ensures that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will instead commission a nonpartisan map for the 2018 midterms.
For the past eight years, Pennsylvania has boasted one of the worst gerrymanders in the country, holding elections under a map that gave Republicans at least three extra seats in the House of Representatives. In January, the state Supreme Court held that this gerrymander violates the state constitution, which declares that all elections “shall be free and equal.” By diluting Democratic votes, the court explained, Republicans had denied Pennsylvania voters “an equal opportunity to translate their votes into representation.” The court directed the GOP-controlled Legislature to draw new congressional districts “composed of compact and contiguous territory” without partisan bias.
After a failed emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Pennsylvania Republicans drew up a new map—behind closed doors, with no public or Democratic input—that seemed to contain more compact districts. But data analysts, including University of Florida professor and redistricting expert Brian Amos, quickly pointed out that this new map featured almost the exact same level of partisan bias. Princeton University professor Sam Wang wrote that “a prettier map can still conceal ill intent,” concluding that “Republicans are not dealing in good faith” and the new map “is still a partisan gerrymander.” Tufts University professor Moon Duchin, another redistricting specialist, also found the proposed map to be “an extreme outlier along partisan lines” with “a decidedly partisan skew that cannot be explained by Pennsylvania’s political geography or the application of traditional districting principles.”
Citing these expert opinions, Wolf declared he would not accept the new map because it fails to “comply with the court’s order or Pennsylvania’s Constitution.” He also rejected the proposal because it was drawn exclusively by two Republican leaders without approval from the legislature, as ordered by the court. The task of drawing a genuinely nonpartisan map now falls on Stanford law professor Nathaniel Persily, whom the court has commissioned to draw new districts. Persily has drawn congressional maps for other courts that have invalidated legislative gerrymanders. While it’s certain his new map won’t please Republicans, some Democrats also likely won’t be pleased, as the current map packs several Democrats into safely blue districts whose voters now must be redistributed to create more competitive elections statewide.
Persily’s work will likely satisfy the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which laid out clear guidelines to explain how districts can comport with the Free and Equal Elections Clause.
Presuming Republicans actually comply with the court’s orders, Pennsylvanians will finally vote under a legal map in 2018. With fairer districts, the state will probably send three additional Democrats to the U.S. House of Representatives in November. That could be just enough to help the party win back control of the chamber.
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