In Gerrymandering Case, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Releases New Map for 2018 Elections

by | February 20, 2018

By Jonathan Lai and Liz Navratil

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Monday released a new congressional district map, upending familiar boundaries, renumbering districts across the state and giving a potential boost to Democrats in the 2018 House elections.

Its plan splits only 13 counties. Of those, four counties are split into three districts and nine are split into two districts. By contrast the most recent map, enacted in 2011, split 28 counties.

"The Remedial Plan is superior or comparable to all plans submitted by the parties, the intervenors, and amici, by whichever Census-provided definition one employs," the court wrote in its order. It also wrote that the plan is "superior or comparable" to the various map proposals on the average compactness of districts and that each district in the map has an equal population, plus or minus one person.

It also upends the previous map, with significant changes to where districts are located and renumbering several of them. Philadelphia remains divided into three congressional districts, with most of it split between the Second and Third Districts. A portion of South Philadelphia is drawn into the Fifth district based in Delaware County _ a substitute of sorts for U.S. Rep. Bob Brady's First Congressional District. That number instead moves north to Bucks County.

Many of the changes seem generally favorable for Democrats. President Donald Trump would have won 10 congressional districts under the new plan, two fewer than he actually won in 2016 under the most recent map. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would have won the remaining eight districts under the new map, though one district is so close as to be essentially a toss-up.

Under the new plan, Trump would have won seven districts and Clinton each would have won five districts with at least 55 percent of the two-party vote. In the competitive range, Trump and Clinton would have each won three districts with margins between 50 and 55 percent of the two-party vote.

In one win for local Democrats, the fourth district is centered on Montgomery County. Critics of the map adopted in 2011 often pointed to Montgomery County, which was split into five districts in that plan and had no member of congress living in the county. Bucks and Chester Counties also receive districts based largely on their boundaries.

"It's a big win for Montgomery County and Delco," said Philadelphia-based political consultant Larry Ceisler. "Montgomery County, in the past few redistrictings, has had three or four members of Congress." He adds that it "means a lot" for a county to have a "go-to member of Congress."

The new map comes after weeks of political and legal fighting following the state high court's ruling that the map adopted in 2011 was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said in a statement that he applauds the court's work "and I respect their effort to remedy Pennsylvania's unfair and unequal congressional elections."

"Now, my focus will be on making sure the Department of State can support our counties and all candidates in the election process, particularly during the petition period," he said.

But don't expect the map to end the battle.

Even before Monday's order, Republican lawmakers were vowing to challenge in federal court whatever map the court selected. The decision to take the mapmaking into the court's own hands, they argued, usurps the line-drawing power that the U.S. Constitution gives to state legislatures. And the court did not give them enough time to enact a new map.

"This Court recognized that the primary responsibility for drawing congressional districts rested squarely with the legislature, but we also acknowledged that, in the eventuality of the General Assembly not submitting a plan to the Governor, or the Governor not approving the General Assembly's plan within the time specified, it would fall to this Court expeditiously to adopt a plan based upon the evidentiary record developed in the Commonwealth Court," the per curiam order reads, adding that drawing a map is "a role which our Court has full constitutional authority and responsibility to assume."

The court notes in the order that all participants in the case had the opportunity to submit proposals and feedback, and it said that its plan "draws heavily upon the submissions."

Last month, the state high court ruled the congressional map unconstitutional and ordered a new one drawn in time for the May 15 primary election. The previous map, the justices said, violated the state constitution's guarantee that "elections shall be free and equal" by discriminating against Democratic voters, reducing their voting power in favor of Republicans.

Pennsylvania has an electorate that votes in about equal numbers for both political parties, making it a key battleground state in recent presidential elections. But Republicans consistently won the same 13 of the state's 18 U.S. House seats under the previous map, even as voters elected former President Barack Obama and President Trump; U.S. Senators Bob Casey, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Republican; former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, and Gov. Wolf, a Democrat.

"An election corrupted by extensive, sophisticated gerrymandering and partisan dilution of votes is not 'free and equal,' " Justice Debra McCloskey Todd wrote in the opinion for the majority.

On Monday, the court also approved a revised nomination petition calendar for candidates running for U.S. House. Under that calendar, the nomination petition period runs from Feb. 27 through March 20. That keeps the primary election scheduled for May 15.

The new district lines have the potential to impact politics in Pennsylvania and at the national level, as Democrats attempt to capitalize on favorable political trends to try to regain control of the U.S. House.

For weeks, Republicans have attacked some of the justices as partisan and accused the court of legislating from the bench, seeking one method after another of blocking the order from taking effect.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) and House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) requested that the U.S. Supreme Court intervene but were rejected by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. They also attempted to get a state Supreme Court justice disqualified from the case by attacking him as biased, but he declined to recuse himself, saying he had not crossed any lines. Scarnati has refused to comply with court orders to share data intended to help the justices draw a map, and a rank-and-file Republican lawmaker is seeking cosponsors to sign onto an attempt to impeach the court's Democratic justices.

As those fights raged, the deadline loomed: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had given the Republican-controlled legislature less than three weeks to draw a new map and send it to Wolf, a Democrat. Pennsylvania's congressional map is normally enacted as legislation, meaning it passes through the state House and Senate, then goes to the governor for his signature or veto. When it became clear the legislature had run out of time, Scarnati and Turzai drew their own map and sent it directly to Wolf _ a move criticized by some who said they didn't have the power to act on behalf of the entire legislature, without a vote taking place.

Wolf rejected that map last week, joining a growing consensus that the map was still a partisan gerrymander.

With that avenue blocked, participants in the case scrambled to finalize their own map proposals. Scarnati and Turzai stood by their map submission, while other participants submitted their own proposals.

In the days since, groups tied to the case have continued to fight. Sunday night, Scarnati and Turzai wrote to the state Supreme Court that it should accept their map, calling it "the best overall plan" and saying it creates the largest number of competitive districts. They also told the court that some of the maps should be rejected outright and accused Lt. Gov. Mike Stack and Senate Democrats, in their proposals, of attempting to gerrymander in their own favor, saying those maps were "deliberately drawn to pack Republican voters into a limited number of uncompetitive districts and to cement a 10-8 Democratic majority."

(c)2018 The Philadelphia Inquirer