On February 5, the US Supreme Court denied the request of Republicans in Pennsylvania to delay a ruling issued by the state’s Supreme Court mandating the redrawing of congressional lines. The decision likely ensures that the state will get a new map with redrawn districts in time for the fall 2018 midterm elections, moving Pennsylvania residents in the direction of a much fairer representation system.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the current lines drawn are egregiously biased along partisan motivations. The current lines were drawn by a Republican majority legislature under a Republican governor in 2011 in one of the most outrageous examples of gerrymandering. In an order issued January 22, a majority on the seven-member court held that the current map “clearly, plainly, and palpably violates” the Pennsylvania Constitution. In the holding, Justice Debra Todd writes, “A diluted vote is not an equal vote, as all voters do not have an equal opportunity to translate their votes into representation.”
The state’s Supreme Court order required the legislature to submit a new map by February 9 to Governor Tom Wolf for approval or veto consideration. If the governor and the state legislature fail to agree on new district boundaries, the state Supreme Court will craft a new map by February 19 with help from Stanford law professor Nathaniel Persily, who has previously served as a court-appointed expert on congressional maps for Georgia, Maryland, Connecticut, New York, and North Carolina. The new map will be in place in time for the congressional primaries in May. Under the existing map, despite receiving 50 percent of the statewide vote, Democratic House candidates only hold five of eighteen seats. The new map submitted to the governor last Friday is just as problematic. Donald Trump won the majority vote in twelve of eighteen districts in 2016, and in the Republican redrawing the party would continue to outperform Democrats in the same number of districts.
The US Supreme Court is expected to rule by June on two cases that test whether extreme partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. One case concerns state legislative district lines drawn in Wisconsin, the second looks at a congressional district in Maryland. Pennsylvania’s ruling was based on the state—not federal—Constitution, and Justice Samuel Alito, who handles emergency petitions in Pennsylvania, declined to interfere. The Supreme Court rarely intervenes in election cases from state courts. The notable exception of course is Bush v. Gore (2000).
The current attention gerrymandering practices are receiving can only spell trouble for Republicans in 2018. By most estimates, a fair map in Pennsylvania will spell victories for Democrats. Even drawing lines in the electoral sandbox is a tactic not passing muster under the scrutiny of effectively disenfranchised voters. Imagine that! Pennsylvania voters will hopefully cast their midterm ballots in fair and equal elections. Democrats nationwide can look to Pennsylvania for strategic planning on how to change the system ahead of its bid to take back Senate and House majorities in the fall of 2018.