Lawmakers in Harrisburg are crafting new congressional boundaries for Pennsylvania, which will lose one of its 19 federal representatives in the next election. The process is controlled by Republicans, under attack from Democrats, and sure to generate controversy.
Pennsylvania is something of a poster child for partisan gerrymandering. One survey, by the Philadelphia-based data-mapping firm Azavea, concluded the state’s current congressional map is the second-most gerrymandered in the nation.
That map is the result of a redistricting plan enacted by the Republican-dominated Legislature after the 2000 census.
Jessica Ring Amunson, a Washington lawyer who specializes in redistricting cases, said that in crafting new boundaries, Republican leaders used all three of the classic tools of gerrymandering.
“Those are packing, cracking, and kidnapping,” she said.
“Packing is when a party takes as many as the other party’s supporters as possible and puts them all into a single district,” Amunson said.
“You take a concentrated group of one party’s supporters, and you fracture them among several districts,” she explained.
“Kidnapping is a technique where you will take an incumbent from one district and pair that incumbent with an incumbent, usually of the same party, in another district,” Amunson said.
Amunson explained that the terms aren’t just political slang. They’re used in legal filings and court decisions in gerrymandering cases.
And so arose the pterodactyl
Amunson, a neutral observer in the Pennsylvania redistricting case, was part of the legal team that handled the dispute when it reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
The map enacted by Republicans eliminated four Democrats by merging their districts with others, and created two new Republican-friendly seats in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs–one so convoluted that its shape is said to resemble a pterodactyl.
The protracted litigation led to a federal appeals court ruling that the Pennsylvania map went too far, and violated the Constitution. The case then went to the Supreme Court, the first partisan gerrymandering case to reach the court in decades.
In a 5-to-4 vote, the Supreme Court reversed the earlier ruling and let the new boundaries stand. Since that decision, Amunson said, lower courts have typically dismissed political gerrymandering claims at the outset.
Today Republicans again control the Legislature and the governor’s chair, and party leaders in Harrisburg are now redrawing congressional boundaries based on the 2010 census.
Leaders held three hearings in the spring to get general input from the public, but Barry Kauffman of Common Cause Pennsylvania said lawmakers are doing the real work behind closed doors, and will approve new boundaries without another hearing.
“After having had the data from the census office for nine months, it looks like the Legislature is going to try and trot out a bill nobody has seen the contents of, and ram it through within a matter of days,” Kauffman said.
Proposed map to be available online
Western Pennsylvania state Rep. Darryl Metcalfe, who chairs the House committee working on redistricting, said while it’s true no more hearings are planned, the proposed map will be embodied in legislation that will be posted on the Internet.
“There’s ample opportunity for any citizen to access the information once it’s available, to review it, then to contact their own legislators to provide their comment to them on the legislation,” Metcalfe said.
Asked more than once whether advancing Republican interests was a goal of the redistricting process, Metcalfe would only say, “My end product will be constitutional, legal and fair.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has found that partisan interests and incumbency preservation may be considered in redistricting, but that, at some point, a gerrymandered map could violate the Constitution. But it hasn’t set forth a clear standard for making that determination.
There’s an interesting postscript to the last Pennsylvania redistricting plan upheld by the Supreme Court. Democratic political consultant Ken Smukler said things didn’t always go quite as expected in the Philadelphia suburbs.
‘Be careful what you wish for’
“It’s a lot of, be careful what you wish for,” Smukler said. “Because the Republicans created the map, and the map in the collar counties of Philadelphia actually ended up creating districts that were won by Democrats.”
The Democrats did particularly well in those districts in 2006. The Republicans took two back in 2010.
One district Republicans thought they could do well in was captured and held by Democrat Allyson Schwartz. The pterodactyl-shaped suburban district has been held by Republican Jim Gerlach, but Democrats have waged competitive campaigns there.
New boundary lines should be proposed in a few days. They’re sure to provoke criticism, and possibly litigation.