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Pennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down gerrymandered congressional districts

Colin Vanden Berg
Associate A&C Editor

On Jan. 22, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court declared that the congressional district lines that had been in place since 2011 violated the state Constitution, according to The Washington Post and other national and local news sources. In the ensuing weeks, state legislators have clashed with state and federal officials over a newly unveiled congressional map which greatly reduces the Republican advantage in the state prior to November’s midterm elections.

In general elections for Congress, each state’s legislative and judicial branches geographically divide the state into voting districts, each of which is represented by a senator and a congressman, according to census.gov. After the Republican Party gained control of Pennsylvania’s State Senate in 2011, they redrew the congressional map to disproportionately favor their own party.

The 2011 map created 18 voting districts, and were drawn in such a way that Democrats have since held only five of those 18 seats, according to The Washington Post. This feat was accomplished by drawing oddly-shaped district lines that clustered democratic areas into smaller pockets compared to Republican voters.

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The Pennsylvania State Supreme Court declared the 2011 congressional map unconstitutional on Jan. 22. The decision was made by a Democrat-majority court, and Republicans have been fighting the ruling, trying to take the case to the federal Supreme Court. Above shows the previous congressional map (top) next to a possible nonpartisan redistricting (bottom) relative to the 2016 presidential election. Photos courtesy of The New York Times.

 

The Post reported that on Jan. 22, the Democratic-controlled Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the 2011 map was “clearly, plainly, and palpably” unconstitutional. The Republican-held Pennsylvania Congress was then ordered to redraw the map and present it to Governor Tom Wolfe.

Wolfe rejected the Congress’ new map on Feb. 15, leading the court to use independent analysis to unveil a new map five days later. The new map maintains the 18 districts, but arranges them so that the Republican advantage drops from twelve-to-five to ten-to-eight. The New York Times identified at least two Republican-held districts that had become much more competitive under the new map. The non-partisan tracking website Roll Call estimates that Pennsylvania’s number of competitive districts rose from perhaps one to six.

Republicans have explored several options in an attempt to block or delay implementation of the new map. On Feb. 5, the federal Supreme Court denied state lawmakers’ request to block the lower court’s decision, per The Hill. Lancaster Online reported on Feb. 25 that Republican state senators considered a bid to impeach the state court justices, due to what they described as an unprecedented grab for power at the judiciary level.

Republican’s latest efforts, according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, includes the appointment on Feb. 22 of three federal judges to consider a request by state congressmen to allow the 2018 Pennsylvania elections to use the 2011 congressional map.

Not all districts became bluer under the new map, however. Lancaster County, which previously occupied the 16th District along with liberal Reading, now occupies the 11th District with conservative York County.

The Huffington Post reports that centrist Democrat Christina Hartman and progressive Democrat Jess King—who will enter a primary in May to face incumbent Pat Toomey—now face a more difficult task than they did before the districts were redrawn. The New York Times calculates that President Trump’s seven-point margin of victory in the district would jump to a 26-point margin in the new map.

Speaking to Lancaster Online, both King and Hartman remained determined. Hartman praised the court’s decision, citing “proper democratic representation.” King conceded the Republican leaning of the new district, but affirmed her campaign’s commitment to “[standing up] against the establishment in both parties, and [advocating] for policies that will help all working people.”

The Pennsylvania primary—the first election held with the new congressional map—takes place on May 15.