National News

Court-Drawn Map in Pennsylvania May Lift Democrats’ House Chances

Posted February 19, 2018 8:36 p.m. EST
Updated February 19, 2018 8:41 p.m. EST

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court drew new boundaries for the state’s congressional districts on Monday, releasing a map that, if it stands, could play a significant role in Democratic Party efforts to gain control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections.

The court ruled in January that the state’s existing congressional map was an illegal partisan gerrymander that “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated the state Constitution. Under that map, Republicans have repeatedly won 13 of the state’s 18 House seats.

Election analysts said that the court’s new map could result in Democrats picking up three or four more seats, based on 2016 voting patterns. Pennsylvania is a perennial battleground in statewide elections, with voters supporting the two parties in roughly equal numbers. Critics have pointed to the current imbalance in House seats to highlight the unfairness of the current map, which was drawn in 2011 by Republicans.

Republicans in the state Legislature said they would challenge the new maps in federal court.

“Implementation of this map would create a constitutional crisis where the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is usurping the authority of the legislative and executive branches,” the leaders of the state Senate, Joe Scarnati, and the House, Mike Turzai, said in a statement. “This map illustrates that the definition of fair is simply code for a desire to elect more Democrats.”

But some election law experts said Republicans’ legal options were narrow. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the remapping process.

The Pennsylvania high court’s actions have unfolded in a monthslong challenge to the existing congressional maps begun by the League of Women Voters. The court based its rulings on the state Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court typically respects such decisions.

Separately, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering two challenges to partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin and Maryland. Those cases were brought through federal courts, unlike in Pennsylvania. A major decision is expected later this year.

In drawing its maps — in part with the advice of a Stanford law professor, Nathaniel Persily, known for his expertise in legislative districting — the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected two competing maps drawn by Republicans and Democrats. The court said that unlike the offerings from partisan mapmakers, the districts it drew “follow the traditional redistricting criteria of compactness, contiguity, equality of population, and respect for the integrity of political subdivisions.”

The court’s maps split only 13 counties, compared with 28 counties that are divided under the maps currently in use, which were drawn in 2011 by Republicans in the Legislature. One of the current House districts is so tortured in its shape it earned the nickname “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck.”

Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, a Democrat, who had exercised his power to veto a map offered by Republican lawmakers, welcomed the districts drawn by the court.

“I applaud the court for their decision and I respect their effort to remedy Pennsylvania’s unfair and unequal congressional elections,” Wolf said in a statement.

Election law experts said the new map created an equal number of districts favoring Democrats and Republicans. “It appears to be tilted toward neither political party,” Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, said. “It looks more like a 9-to-9 division of the state.”

David Wasserman, the House of Representatives editor of the Cook Political Report, wrote on Twitter that the map had not simply undone the Republican gerrymander. It also took into account the fact that Democrats tend to cluster in cities and college towns, “actively helping Dems compensate for their natural geographic disadvantage.”

Some Republican incumbents instantly found themselves on shakier ground. Rep. Ryan Costello’s 6th District, which had been Republican-leaning territory in southeastern Pennsylvania, has morphed into a Democratic-leaning district, Wasserman wrote.

And some open seats, like those currently held by the retiring Republicans Charlie Dent and Patrick Meehan, are now more likely to end up in Democratic hands, Wasserman said.

The question now is whether the map, issued in a 4-3 opinion that split along partisan lines, will hold.

McDonald said opponents of the map have two potential legal avenues. They could argue that under the Voting Rights Act the new map is unfair to minority candidates, particularly in the Philadelphia area — an argument that McDonald said would take years to prove, if it were possible at all.

Or, he said, Republicans could challenge the map under the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which empowers state legislatures to set the rules for congressional elections.

This is an argument Republicans already brought to the Supreme Court, which rejected it. McDonald said challengers could seek to make the same case before a sympathetic federal judge, which would buy them time.

“Delay actually works in the favor of the Republicans,” McDonald said. “They might be able to get the map held off till 2020.”

Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California at Irvine, was also skeptical that there are plausible legal avenues for Republicans.

“It is hard to see where Republicans go from here to successfully fight these maps,” Hasen wrote on his blog.