PA Supreme Court picks new map

GOP maintains slight bias

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HARRISBURG, PA — As the dust settles from a contentious redistricting process, Pennsylvanians find themselves with, essentially, more of the same.

After years of citizen map submissions, months of back-and-forth between the Republican-controlled legislature and the Democratic governor, and most recently hours of testimony from a slate of interested parties, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has chosen a new congressional map that closely resembles the current one. It’s not expected to upset the current balance of power in either political party’s favor.

Pennsylvania redraws the district lines determining which federal House members represent which sections of the commonwealth every 10 years following the census. Due to slow population growth, the new map includes 17 districts rather than the current 18.

Since the state legislature is tasked with drawing these districts, they have the opportunity to do so in a way that benefits their party in future elections. Unfairly drawn maps are called “gerrymandered.” In 2011, Republicans fully dominated the redistricting process with a Republican-controlled legislature and a Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. Together, they passed a congressional map so heavily gerrymandered toward Republicans that the PA Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional in 2018 and mandated a new, more representative map.

This time around, Republican lawmakers hit a roadblock with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf who swiftly vetoed the “highly skewed” map they presented him. Nonpartisan map analyses found that this map indeed leaned notably in Republicans’ favor.

Unable to reach a compromise, the General Assembly and governor were forced to turn the decision over to the court system. Pennsylvania’s conservative-leaning Commonwealth Court was originally tasked with choosing from more than a dozen potential maps submitted by lawmakers, the governor’s office and various good government groups. The court was set to choose the map favored by Republicans and vetoed by Wolf, until the highest court in the commonwealth—the more liberal PA Supreme Court—announced that it was taking over the task.

After listening to testimony from all interested parties, the court made a 4-3 decision to choose a map known as “the Carter plan.” Out of all the maps to choose from, the Carter plan was pitched as the approach of “least change.” Indeed, expert reports and scientific map analyses agree that the Carter map, while accounting for population shifts, maintains a partisan makeup in PA closely aligned with the current map.

Under the Carter plan, 90 percent of residents will remain in the same district as before. Republicans enjoy a slight bias, but one far less significant than the map they pitched themselves.

One way to evaluate partisan bias is through a metric known as an “efficiency gap.” The larger the number, the more biased the map is. According to PlanScore, an online tool for analyzing district maps, the Carter plan has a 1.6 percent efficiency gap, a slight GOP bias compared to the 6.6 percent efficiency gap in the map Republican lawmakers proposed.

Reactions

Citizen map drawing groups and good government advocacy organizations responded generally positively, if reservedly, to the court’s choice.

The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania commended the decision, saying, “Though we celebrate today, the fight for a truly reformed redistricting process is not over. Going forward, Pennsylvania needs a set of criteria for drawing maps to be enacted into law to constrain future overreaches and to ensure that Pennsylvania policy supports the full participation of every eligible voter.”

Draw the Lines—a coalition that pitched its own citizen-drawn map to the court said, “While we are disappointed that the Supreme Court did not select the Pennsylvania Citizens’ Map, we are encouraged that the map they selected is an improvement on the map picked by the Commonwealth Court… By the metrics, it is a fair map that meets the constitutional standards.”

“While we would have been happy to see a district plan created through a collaborative citizen process, the map itself is a good choice,” Carol Kuniholm of anit-gerrymandering group Fair Districts PA said. “It balances key metrics of compactness, contiguity and limited split jurisdictions. It has a low partisan bias, slightly pro-GOP but far less so than the map passed by House and Senate Republicans and vetoed by Gov. Wolf. Only two maps do better on providing minority opportunities.”

Republican Rep. Seth Grove, who pushed for the strongly Republican map, decried the Carter map as a “shamelessly partisan” choice, despite the fact that it leans in favor of his own party:

“With the swipe of their pens, four Democrat justices from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia eviscerated the months of work the General Assembly and the citizens of Pennsylvania put into developing a fair and constitutional congressional map. Obviously, the message was clear by the courts: it doesn’t matter what process the General Assembly or the people use, we care more about the opinions of partisan national groups,” Grove said. “Today is truly a sad day for democracy and the founding principles of our great nation.”

Wolf­—whose map submission was also passed over by the court—put out a very brief statement on the decision, one absent of the fiery passion expressed by Grove.

“I am pleased with today’s ruling adopting the so-called ‘Carter Plan’ for congressional redistricting. It is a fair map that will result in a congressional delegation mirroring the citizenry of Pennsylvania,” Wolf said. “With today’s decision, we could again send to Washington members of Congress elected in districts that are fairly drawn without favor to one party or the other.”

Click here for more articles covering Pennsylvania's redistricting progress.

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