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Three Takeaways from Pennsylvania’s New, Fairer Congressional Map

Although there’s an obvious impulse to figure out whether Democrats or Republicans will come out ahead, it is Pennsylvania voters who, in fact, benefit most from the court’s intervention.

February 20, 2018

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court made major news on Pres­id­ents’ Day when it released a new — and much less biased — map for the state’s congres­sional elec­tions. The dust around the new map hasn’t yet settled, and may not for a while. But several clear takeaways have already emerged.

1. The new map is a huge win for Pennsylvani­a’s voters.

Although there’s an obvi­ous impulse to figure out whether Demo­crats or Repub­lic­ans will come out ahead under the new map, it is Pennsylvania voters who, in fact, are the biggest bene­fi­ciar­ies of the court’s inter­ven­tion.

The old map — an extreme partisan gerry­mander enacted in 2011 — was easily one of the most biased of this decade, giving Repub­lic­ans a signi­fic­ant advant­age in turn­ing their votes into seats. The old map guar­an­teed that Repub­lic­ans would consist­ently win thir­teen out of the state’s eight­een congres­sional seats in all but a Demo­cratic tsunami. (In fact, Demo­crats would be stuck with five seats whether their share of the statewide vote was as low as 41 percent or as high as 55 percent.) This was no acci­dent. The Repub­lican legis­lat­ors in charge of the redis­trict­ing process designed the map to maxim­ize their party’s seats and insu­late them from success­ful chal­lenges. The result was a deeply unac­count­able, Repub­lican-domin­ated congres­sional deleg­a­tion for this famously purple state.

The new map prom­ises a congres­sional deleg­a­tion for Pennsylvania that is more account­able to the state’s voters and more repres­ent­at­ive of their diverse interests. The map does not replace pro-Repub­lican bias with pro-Demo­crat bias. It has much less of a partisan skew, period – allow­ing for fairer distri­bu­tions of seats between the parties. Simu­lated elec­tions under the new map — here, here, here, and here, for a sample — show Demo­crats now have the oppor­tun­ity to win up to eleven seats in a very strong Demo­cratic year." More import­antly, the new map allows each party to win more seats as it wins more votes—scor­ing high in what redis­trict­ing experts call “respons­ive­ness” — exactly what should happen under a fair map.

The new map avoids precisely what the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sought to avoid: “arti­fi­cially entrench­ing repres­ent­at­ive power,” the most perni­cious harm that extreme partisan gerry­man­der­ing is inflict­ing on our elec­tions.

2.  The debate over the new map will continue, even if it should­n’t.

Although the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s word should be the last on this subject, oppon­ents of the new map have said that they will continue to contest it. The Repub­lican legis­lat­ors who defen­ded the old map at trial have already indic­ated they will file a federal lawsuit to inval­id­ate the new plan. And, this morn­ing, Pres­id­ent Trump jumped into the mix, urging Pennsylvania Repub­lic­ans to take their chal­lenge “all the way to the [U.S.] Supreme Court if neces­sary.” For all this grand­stand­ing, the like­li­hood of any kind of chal­lenge getting trac­tion is low.

The precise dimen­sions of the rumored suit are unclear. But, if it looks at all like the emer­gency motion the old map’s defend­ers filed with the U.S. Supreme Court last month to try to block the process of redraw­ing the map, it will likely fail. (That motion argued that the state court had usurped the legis­lature’s power to redis­trict under the Elec­tions Clause.) Justice Alito tossed the motion without even refer­ring it to his colleagues on the Court. And, as Rick Hasen explains, Justice Alito was right to do so, because the chal­lenge was wholly merit­less.

The defend­ers of the old map also lack clear support from within their own party. Partisan gerry­man­der­ing has emerged as an issue for both parties. Ohio Repub­lic­ans worked with citizen groups and Demo­crats to reform congres­sional redis­trict­ing in their state. And a large contin­gent of Repub­lican legis­lat­ors and elec­ted offi­cials have joined with their Demo­cratic coun­ter­parts to push courts to end the prac­tice, moving prom­in­ent Repub­lic­ans like John McCain, John Kasich, Arnold Schwar­zeneg­ger, and Larry Hogan to the fore­front of the conver­sa­tion.

As this emer­ging bipar­tisan chorus is making clear, extreme partisan gerry­man­der­ing is taking an intol­er­able toll on our demo­cracy, harm­ing Demo­crats in Wiscon­sin and Repub­lic­ans in Mary­land alike. Partis­ans work­ing to preserve the prac­tice are oper­at­ing on an island that’s grow­ing smal­ler by the day.

3. Extreme partisan gerry­man­der­ing is a rare bug, not a wide­spread feature, of redis­trict­ing.

Extreme partisan gerry­man­der­ing is a major threat to our demo­cracy. But, as the Pennsylvania saga reminds us, it can only emerge under specific and uncom­mon circum­stances.

The main circum­stance? Single-party control of the redis­trict­ing process. That’s exactly what Repub­lic­ans enjoyed in 2011, when they held both the legis­lature and the governor’s mansion. With control over all the levers in the redis­trict­ing process, they were able to push through an extreme partisan gerry­mander.

This time around, Repub­lic­ans had to share the levers with others. And it showed in the results. Control over this winter’s redis­trict­ing process was split between the Repub­lican-domin­ated legis­lature and the Demo­cratic governor­ship: the legis­lature was free to develop a new map, but Governor Wolf held a veto over whatever they produced. As things played out, Governor Wolf chose to exer­cise his veto power to reject a map that he believed unfairly benefited Repub­lic­ans. The map then moved to the state Supreme Court, which received input from vari­ous stake­hold­ers for construct­ing a new congres­sional plan. The end product of this process — which featured several checks that preven­ted any one group of legis­lat­ors from domin­at­ing the redis­trict­ing conver­sa­tion — was a map that was fairer to voters.

As Pennsylvani­a’s exper­i­ence suggests, the worst abuses of our redis­trict­ing processes occur when the legis­lat­ors of one party can act unilat­er­ally. Anything that can cut down on that power — whether it’s split­ting control over the process between parties, getting courts involved, or turn­ing over mapping to inde­pend­ent redis­trict­ing commis­sions — can go a long way to restor­ing some basic fair­ness to our system.

(Image: Supreme Court of Pennsylvania)