Imagine that the state of Pennsylvania is a pizza, a perfect circle that is to be divided into ten equal sections, or districts. And in this pizza live 100 people, 60 Democrats and 40 Republicans. Imagine now that all 60 of these Democrats live in a smaller circle at the center of the pizza, and the 40 republicans live outside of the smaller circle but inside of the larger circle. There are a few different ways the pizza can be divided; the first would be into ten equal pizza slices. However, if this were to be the case, and the democrats and republicans were distributed evenly throughout their respective areas, there would be a ratio of six democrats to four republicans in each slice. Therefore, the democrats would control all of the pizza, which would not be fair as the make up only 60% of the population. The districts can be divided to favor the republicans, too. If the small, inner circle where all of the democrats live was to be made into one district, and the outside, remaining area where the republicans live was to be divided into nine districts, then the pizza’s districts would be controlled by the republicans in a ration of 9 to 1. However, this method of dividing the pizza is not fair either, as the republicans represent a minority, or 40%, of the population.
This is the essence of gerrymandering: redrawing the district lines in a neither organized nor fair manner such that one party will control the majority of the seats in the house, even if they account for less of the popular vote. Therefore, a party with less people can remain in control of the majority of a state’s seats by isolating the other party’s voters into unfairly constructed districts. The question arises, then, how can and how should the state government draw district lines in both a fair and organized manner? In Pennsylvania, the state is just starting to find out.
Throughout the country, state and federal governments have taken action in order to address the increasingly significant problem of gerrymandering. From Wisconsin to Maryland, the United States Supreme Court is currently considering the constitutionality of certain highly partisan district lines. Especially here in Pennsylvania, gerrymandering has become an issue too large to ignore.
In January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared that the current Pennsylvania district lines, drawn in 2011 by the Republican Party, were unconstitutional. It gave Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf and the Republican controlled state legislature three weeks to agree on a new set of district lines in an attempt to fix the problem, one which Terry Madonna, a professor at Franklin and Marshall University, described as “the worst gerrymander in modern Pennsylvania history.” For example, Pennsylvania’s old district seven was considered to be one of the worst gerrymandered districts in the entire country, similar in appearance to a “moose with antlers” or “goofy kicking donald duck.” But throughout this three-week period, which extended through the middle of February, the Pennsylvania state government was unable to come to an agreement. Therefore, with the help of Stanford University professor Nathaniel Persily, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court drew new district lines.
The goal of these new district lines was to be more geographically organized and consistent with the current Pennsylvania county lines. When the republicans drew the lines back in 2011, they split 28 of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania between Pennsylvania’s 18 districts. With the new plan, only 13 of the counties will be divided. But these new districts have another significant impact, as political analysts think that the districts will favor one group in particular: the democrats. With the midterm elections set to take place in November, 12 of Pennsylvania’s state congressional seats are republican-controlled, and 5 are democrat-controlled. However, with the new congressional map, democrats may be able to win four previously republican-dominated districts in eastern, central, and western Pennsylvania. Additionally, reports show that of the competitive districts in Pennsylvania, this new map would make seven additional districts favor democrats and two more districts favor republicans. Nationwide, democrats look to gain a net of twenty-four congressional seats.
With Pennsylvania’s state primary set for May 15 and a filing deadline of March 20, some candidates have limited time to choose what district they will be running for if their previous district was changed in the remapping process. But there are more significant impacts of this change. Since 2010, republicans have been in control of the House; however, with these new districts set to take effect in the coming months, previously controlled republican areas might shift to be either more democratic or just more competitive. Some of the districts that were once a sure win for either party will now become more uncertain with the potential of swinging either way.
In a state like Pennsylvania, which actually has 900,000 more registered democrats than republicans, this was a needed change, and it is wanted, too, by the democrats, who hold eight less seats in the House than the republicans despite controlling the majority of the popular vote. In general, Pennsylvania is a state with a population balanced between the parties but with wide differences in representation due to the unusual drawing of the district lines.
With the old district lines, there would be counties divided into multiple sections and represented by people not representative of that county’s political ideologies, whether that be democratic or republican. In some cases, counties were grouped into districts that were not represented by politicians who lived in or near their area, making it difficult for them to voice their opinions to a congressman who would both listen and understand or a congressman who would be interested and invested in the issues and well being of that county.
The Democrats, as expected, are in support of the redistricting. For example, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf said in a statement that he “applauded the court for their decision,” going on to say that the old district lines were “unfair and “unequal.” Pennsylvania’s republican representatives, however, are not too pleased with the change. House Speaker Mike Turzai, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, and State Representative Cris Dush have all voiced their displeasure with this adjustment to the district lines, claiming that it would “create a constitutional crisis.” Cris Dush has even called for the impeachment of five of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justices, reasoning that they both “overstepped their authority” and did not give the people tasked with the redrawing of the district lines clear instructions, the former of those arguments being a violation of the Pennsylvania State Constitution in his view.
Republican lawmakers also filed a lawsuit with the argument that the redrawing of district lines is a job meant for the state legislature, not the court. Wolf, however, rejected this challenge, saying that this was an issue at the Pennsylvania state level, not the federal level. This was not enough to completely put an end to this debate, as Turazi and Scarnati filed a case in the United States Supreme Court. The US Supreme Court initially refused to block the map but did not rule out the possibility of taking this case. The oral arguments occurred Friday, March 9, in Harrisburg.
To date, Pennsylvania republicans have filed three complaints in the United States Supreme Court, which has recently shown significant interest in undertaking cases dealing with partisan gerrymandering. However, the court heard to all three of these arguments, which were set forth in an attempt to sue the democrats and change or block the new district lines, and rejected all of them. In the afternoon of March 19, the US Supreme Court did not even offer reasoning for their decision, as they refused to step-in and help by claiming that the republicans had no right to legal remedy in this case. As for the morning of March 19, during a case very similar to that of the same afternoon, the court did offer reasoning, stating that the plaintiffs had no standing; the case must be introduced by the entire General Assembly, not an assortment of senators and congressman. To many people, this was not surprising; when there are issues relating to the state law, the state’s Supreme Court has the final say. In this situation the court based its opinion completely on the state constitution. Additionally, Governor Wolf said that on a practical level, redrawing the district lines yet again would cause the congressional primaries to have to be rescheduled or canceled, an action that he estimated would cost 20 million dollars.
It is now close to certain that this year Pennsylvania’s congressional elections will be completed using this new, nonpartisan district map. Consequently, the democrats will most likely gain seats and control in the house. Republicans, though, will now have a much more difficult time getting re-elected. This issue is far from being completely settled, as now Pennsylvania republicans are looking to impeach four of the five Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justices who are responsible for this new map. Despite the constant arguments, most democrats are extremely pleased and calling this a major success, and Republicans have solemnly concluded that, despite how opposed to the new lines they may be, they have to respect the US Supreme Court’s decision and start focusing on different issues concerning Pennsylvania’s inhabitants. Candidates have already started refocusing their efforts and resources on the newly set districts in preparation for the upcoming primary in May and the congressional election in November.
The next several months will reveal whether the democrats gain control of the House or the republicans hold their position and whether or not the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s new district lines remain in place. Regardless of the outcome, the effort put into making this change was a monumental shift from Pennsylvania’s former complacency with the unfair and unorganized district lines. Additionally, political leaders exercised some of the most fundamental principles of a democratic society. With the district lines set to change, and therefore the representatives of these respective districts likely to change as well, this progressive action is going to leave a lasting legacy on not only the state of Pennsylvania but also on the United States of America as a whole.