The saga of Pennsylvania’s congressional map has finally ended after a whirlwind eight weeks that saw two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, a separate suit in federal district court, and threats to impeach five state supreme court justices. Now that the dust has settled and a new congressional map has emerged, Pennsylvania’s voters—and its political parties—can look forward to fairer elections in 2018 and 2020. And beyond.
The drama surrounding Pennsylvania’s map kicked into high gear with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s January 22 decision declaring the map unconstitutional. (The court’s opinion followed soon thereafter.) Republican politicians then launched a string of emergency motions to the U.S. Supreme Court and a fresh federal lawsuit, all designed to block a new, court-drawn map from going into effect. Those efforts were shut down Monday afternoon with back-to-back opinions, one from the U.S. Supreme Court denying a stay of the new map and the other from a three-judge panel dismissing the federal suit.
The immediate winners are Pennsylvania voters, who will cast their ballots in the 2018 midterm elections under a new and fairer map. The old map—which ranked as one of the decade’s most extreme partisan gerrymanders—was drawn to give Republicans a virtually unbreakable 13-to-5 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation. The new, court-drawn map puts the parties on a level playing field for the first time this decade, enabling each party to win more seats as it wins more votes.
But the Republican and Democratic parties are also winners. That’s because the basic rule the court’s opinion set out—that “artificially entrenching” a party in power is impermissible—applies to any party that might hold the redistricting pen. This decade, Republicans had control of redistricting in Pennsylvania. In future decades, it could well be Democrats. (Pennsylvania, after all, is a quintessential battleground.) But regardless who draws the lines in the future, they’ll now face meaningful limits on their ability to rig a map to advantage themselves.
These new limits might also have an additional impact: Encouraging lawmakers to come to the table to reform their redistricting process before the next map is drawn in 2021. Bills to reform redistricting in Pennsylvania already have won the support of 130 members of the Pennsylvania legislature, including 46 Republicans, but have been stalled by legislative leaders eager to preserve their ability to gerrymander. Now that extreme gerrymandering is no longer an option, however, that could change. Indeed, a hearing on reform legislation has been scheduled for the end of March. If today’s rulings become a catalyst for broader reforms, that will be an even bigger win for voters.