Pennsylvania GOP responds to court order striking gerrymandered maps with maps that are even worse

Republicans in the state legislature are flouting the spirit of the state supreme court's decision.

CREDIT: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
CREDIT: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In response to a recent court order, Pennsylvania Republicans want to replace the state’s unconstitutionally gerrymandered congressional maps with a map that is even more gerrymandered.

When the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the state’s gerrymandered congressional maps last month, the court ordered the Republican-controlled legislature to submit new maps by February 9. The Democratic governor must either approve or reject those maps by February 15. If the legislature and the governor are unable to agree to new maps by these deadlines, the court will proceed by adopting maps drawn by the court itself.

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Now, it looks like a court-drawn map will be unavoidable, as Republicans in the state legislature have decided to flout the spirit of the state supreme court’s decision.

Under the old maps, Republican U.S. House candidates consistently won 13 of the state’s 18 congressional districts, even in years when Democrats won the statewide popular vote. The new maps, while cosmetically different than the old ones, are likely to produce the same partisan result. As the Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham explains, “in 2016, Donald Trump received more votes than Hillary Clinton in 12 out of Pennsylvania’s 18 districts. Under the Republicans’ new map, Trump would similarly outperform Clinton in exactly 12 districts.

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Indeed, according to one independent analysis, “under the new map, the median U.S. House seat in Pennsylvania is 1.7% more Republican than the median seat in the last map (when measured in terms of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vote margin).” Thus, Pennsylvania Republicans appear to have responded to a court order requiring them to abandon gerrymandering by drawing a map that is even worse.

In fairness, much of the blame for this development rests with the state supreme court itself. In its initial order striking down the state’s maps, the court held that the new congressional districts must be “composed of compact and contiguous territory” and that they must “not divide any county, city, incorporated town, borough, township, or ward, except where necessary to ensure equality of population.”

Because Democrats tend to live clustered together in urban areas, while Republicans tend to be more spread out in suburban and rural regions, a gerrymandering standard that relies on factors like compactness and respect for municipal boundaries will tend to produce maps that favor Republicans. And sure enough, as the GOP’s new proposed maps demonstrate, it is very easy to draw an aggressive Republican gerrymander that uses compact districts that respect traditional boundaries.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court isn’t the only body to make this mistake. Shortly after the 2016 election, former Attorney General Eric Holder, who is leading up a major Democratic Party effort to combat partisan gerrymandering, proposed “making sure that people who live near each other, and who have similar interests” vote in the same district. But if Democrats push such a standard, they could wind up entrenching Republican gerrymanders, rather than breaking them up.

It is possible to draw reasonably compact maps to overcome the GOP’s geographic advantages — but doing so will often require mapmakers to produce maps that cross municipal boundaries and county lines.

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Imagine, for example, a state with a single major city that overwhelming favors Democrats that is surrounded by largely Republican suburbs and rural areas. One way to draw districts in this state would be to cluster urban voters with other urban voters. Another way is to draw diverse districts that include urban, suburban, and rural voters. In an evenly divided state, the first map is likely to produce 3 Republican districts and 2 Democratic districts, thus locking in GOP control. The second map, by contrast, is likely to produce 5 competitive districts.

Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is unlikely to agree to the new gerrymander drawn by his Republican counterparts. So the 2018 election will likely be conducted under court-drawn maps. If the state supreme court does not wish to draw a new Republican gerrymander of its own, however, it will need to be willing to draw diverse districts that cross municipal lines.


UPDATE (2/13/18): Gov. Wolf announced on Tuesday that he will “not accept the proposed map Republican legislative leaders submitted because it, too, is a partisan gerrymander that does not comply with the court’s order or Pennsylvania’s Constitution.”