By: Scott McMurty
Election law—and particularly map drawing—in Pennsylvania carries the potential to have significant impacts on the composition of government in Washington, as the state has long been considered a battleground in national elections. Yet despite its reputation for competitiveness, Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation has consisted of thirteen Republicans and just five Democrats in the past three Congresses, following a redistricting overhaul by the Republican-controlled state legislature in 2011. This imbalance has sparked calls for redistricting reform in Pennsylvania, and in June became the subject of a legal challenge in Commonwealth Court by the League of Women Voters and disgruntled voters from some of the state’s more “convoluted” districts.
After taking control of the state House and Senate in the 2010 elections, Pennsylvania Republicans seized the opportunity to redraw Congressional and state legislature maps based on 2010 census results and produced new districts that have garnered no shortage of criticism. Both aesthetically and statistically, the new legislative maps smelled strongly of partisan gerrymandering. A comparison of the “old” and “new” Congressional maps is instructive. First, the 2001-2011 map:
Following the 2011 redistricting, the new configuration featured several more geographically curious districts:
PennLive.com’s Wallace McKelvey recently spotlighted some of the state’s more bizarre districts; his article described the Pennsylvania 7th (held by Pat Meehan-R) as “cartoon character Goofy kicking Donald Duck,” the 11th (Lou Barletta-R) as “what had been a fairly conventional district” that “suddenly became an elongated piece of bacon,” and the 17th (Matthew Cartwright-D) as “[weaving] drunkenly across six counties in order to include the Democratic population centers of Easton, Scranton, and Wilkes-Barre.” The 2001 map was far from neat, but it seems safe to say that the 2011 map contains several more eye-popping boundaries.
While the visual may be jarring, numbers lie at the heart of the June 2017 legal challenge. The plaintiffs point to the first elections governed by the new maps, the 2012 midterms, to make their case that the redistricting constitutes an unconstitutional gerrymander. According to the “efficiency gap” metric championed by the challengers in Gill v. Whitford, wasted 2.4 million votes in the 2012 midterms compared to Republicans’ 1.1 million—the highest efficiency gap in the country at a whopping 24.5%. (By comparison, the three-judge panel that ruled for the Gill plaintiffs in federal District Court viewed the 11.69-13% Wisconsin efficiency gap as violative of the Equal Protection Clause.) A second statistical tool, the mean-median gap, shows that the gulf between the average Democratic vote share statewide and the vote share in the median district was similarly wide in 2012. Democrats received nearly 50.5% of the statewide vote but just 42.8% in the median district, a 7.7% gap that was the nation’s fifth largest in that cycle.
More straightforward figures also demonstrate the effect of the 2011 changes. According to the most recent statistics, Democrats enjoy a wide voter registration advantage: 4,051,103 (47.9%) of the state’s 8,450,669 registered voters are Democrats, while 3,235,781 (38.3%) are Republicans. While Republicans did win 54% of the votes cast in Congressional races last year, the party’s 72% share of the state’s Congressional delegation represents a striking disparity.
Of course, the Supreme Court’s impending decision in Gill could portend the results of any court challenge to the 2011 maps. A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs could “open the door to challenges targeting other maps that have the same kind of extreme, lasting bias favoring one party that’s been seen in Wisconsin.” A 2017 Brennan Center study concluded that Pennsylvania, Michigan, and North Carolina “consistently have the most extreme levels of partisan bias,” indicating that the Keystone State’s map would be an easy target if the Court greenlights partisan gerrymandering claims in Gill.
Outside of the courts, alternative methods of reversing or mitigating the 2011 redistricting have also been proposed. On January 23, 2017, state Senators Lisa M. Boscola (D) and Mario M. Scavello (R) introduced a memorandum announcing their intent to draft legislation that would create an “Independent Citizens Commission for Redistricting.” Their proposal, which mimics a similar setup adopted by California in 2008, would take the map drawing process out of legislators’ hands and give it to a panel of independent citizens comprised of four individuals registered with the largest political party in the state, four individuals registered with the second-largest political party in the state, and three individuals unaffiliated with either of the two largest parties. Once established, “the Commission is required to develop a preliminary plan for Congressional and state legislative districts. After a series of public hearings across the state, the Commission will either approve or disapprove of the plan. In order for a plan to be approved, it must receive seven votes, with at least one vote coming from each of the Commission’s subgroups.” Boscola and Scavello’s proposal has yet to gain steam in the assembly, but represents a legislative reform to the map drawing process should legal challenges fail.
Given redistricting’s impact on the composition of Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation and the active efforts underway to reform the map drawing process in the state, the issue remains one to follow for the foreseeable future.