On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, rejected a Republican-drawn map that purported to remedy the current partisan gerrymander of the state’s congressional districts. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that those districts unlawfully favored Republicans under the state constitution and ordered the elected branches to draw up a new map. Wolf’s repudiation of Republican legislators’ proposed plan all but ensures that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will instead commission a nonpartisan map for the 2018 midterms.
For the past eight years, Pennsylvania has boasted one of the worst gerrymanders in the country, holding elections under a map that gave Republicans at least three extra seats in the House of Representatives. In January, the state Supreme Court held that this gerrymander violates the state constitution, which declares that all elections “shall be free and equal.” By diluting Democratic votes, the court explained, Republicans had denied Pennsylvania voters “an equal opportunity to translate their votes into representation.” The court directed the GOP-controlled Legislature to draw new congressional districts “composed of compact and contiguous territory” without partisan bias.
After a failed emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Pennsylvania Republicans drew up a new map—behind closed doors, with no public or Democratic input—that seemed to contain more compact districts. But data analysts, including University of Florida professor and redistricting expert Brian Amos, quickly pointed out that this new map featured almost the exact same level of partisan bias. Princeton University professor Sam Wang wrote that “a prettier map can still conceal ill intent,” concluding that “Republicans are not dealing in good faith” and the new map “is still a partisan gerrymander.” Tufts University professor Moon Duchin, another redistricting specialist, also found the proposed map to be “an extreme outlier along partisan lines” with “a decidedly partisan skew that cannot be explained by Pennsylvania’s political geography or the application of traditional districting principles.”
Citing these expert opinions, Wolf declared he would not accept the new map because it fails to “comply with the court’s order or Pennsylvania’s Constitution.” He also rejected the proposal because it was drawn exclusively by two Republican leaders without approval from the legislature, as ordered by the court. The task of drawing a genuinely nonpartisan map now falls on Stanford law professor Nathaniel Persily, whom the court has commissioned to draw new districts. Persily has drawn congressional maps for other courts that have invalidated legislative gerrymanders. While it’s certain his new map won’t please Republicans, some Democrats also likely won’t be pleased, as the current map packs several Democrats into safely blue districts whose voters now must be redistributed to create more competitive elections statewide.
Persily’s work will likely satisfy the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which laid out clear guidelines to explain how districts can comport with the Free and Equal Elections Clause.
Presuming Republicans actually comply with the court’s orders, Pennsylvanians will finally vote under a legal map in 2018. With fairer districts, the state will probably send three additional Democrats to the U.S. House of Representatives in November. That could be just enough to help the party win back control of the chamber.
Update, Feb. 13, 2:30 p.m.: Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate President pro tempore Joseph Scarnati—who drew the rejected map—have issued a response to Gov. Wolf. “Your letter sets forth a nonsensical approach to governance,” Turzai and Scarnati wrote. “Quit being coy. … It’s time that you produced a map for the public to review in a transparent fashion.” They added:
Furthermore, we do not concede that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has the power to invalidate a congressional map (or draw new ones) that has been in place for the past 3 elections cycles … This entire exercise, while cloaked in “litigation,” is and has been nothing more than the ultimate partisan gerrymander—one brought about by the Democrat Chief Executive of the Commonwealth acting in concert with politically-connected litigants in order to divest the General Assembly of its Constitutional authority to enact Congressional districts.
We look forward to reviewing your “fair” map and are ready and willing to meet at your earliest convenience to see if, together, we can reach consensus on a “fair” map that can garner majorities in the House and Senate and that you will sign.
Wolf will almost certainly turn down this overture. Turzai and Scarnati could have invited his input before they submitted their map; instead, they drew new districts in closed meetings without consulting the governor or any of their Democratic colleagues. If GOP leaders truly wanted Wolf’s counsel, they had ample opportunity to request it. Instead, they wasted nearly a week filing a doomed appeal in an effort to preserve the current gerrymander. Moreover, there’s little reason to believe that Turzai and Scarnati would negotiate in good faith. Scarnati has already flagrantly defied one court order, and he continues to denounce the legitimacy of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling. If Wolf put forth a fair map, he and Turzai would almost certainly reject it. Given that the court will take over map-drawing duties on Feb. 15 in the absence of an agreement, Wolf is better off ignoring GOP leaders and allowing Persily to take over from here.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus