A shock it was not.
The dramatic decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to strike down the state’s 2011 Republican-drawn congressional boundary lines was not a huge surprise. At some point, the egregious gerrymandering implemented in the state earlier this decade was bound to be struck down – both on the merits and the hard political fact that the state Supreme Court now sports a commanding 5 to 2 Democratic majority.
Might met right on this one and both prevailed in finding that the 2011 voting district lines violated the state constitution.
The rejected 2011 maps were designed to ensure that Republicans would dominate congressional elections in the state throughout the decade; they accomplished this brilliantly giving them 13 of 18 seats, despite Democrats holding an 800,000 active voter edge. They did this by creating some voting districts whose shapes are so horrendous they made Pennsylvania an ongoing national joke. One particular atrocious example is the seventh congressional district, one of the most gerrymandered in the nation. So grotesquely disfigured, it was nicknamed “Goofy chasing Donald Duck.”
Until now, the U.S. Supreme Court had put the issue of gerrymandering on the back burner when it decided that gerrymandering was not justiciable – essentially meaning court had not been able to develop a standard to decide how much gerrymandering violated the U.S. Constitution. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court solved that particular legal nicety by simply finding the gerrymandered districts in violation of the state constitution.
But the story doesn’t end here. While most unbiased observers agree the Pennsylvania 2011 map had to go, many were shocked at the time frame imposed by the court ruling. The court gave the legislature an almost impossible three-week deadline to draw new lines – plus a few additional days to get agreement with the governor (he can veto any new legislative drawn map if he chooses).
Moreover, the court has issued a not so veiled threat that if no new map is produced by February 15th, they (the Supreme Court) will deal with the redistricting themselves. One suspects the court will cry no crocodile tears should the new map not materialize by the February deadline.
In fact, the court has already retained a widely known election law expert to assist them. Indeed, a court adopted map breaks no judicial precedents (it happened before in 1992) and it gives the court’s Democratic majority enormous advantage to produce a map more favorable to Democrats.
With five open Pennsylvania Republican House seats this year (Barletta, Dent, Meehan, Murphy, and Shuster), the opportunities for Democrats to pick up congressional seats may be unprecedented. The increasing expectation that 2018 may be a “wave election” against Republicans only underscores the stakes.
But opportunity for Democrats is chaos for Republicans as well as the voters of Pennsylvania.
The time frame imposed by the court is far too constricted. In trying to adhere to the May 15th primary schedule, it has set up a chain of unanticipated consequences that could make the cure worse than the disease. The legislature probably has the technical capacity to complete the task on time. But the court-imposed deadline leaves no time to gain political consensus. Republicans in control of the legislature have to get agreement with its own members as well as deal with minority Democrats, and gain the assent of Democratic Governor Tom Wolf.
Nor is there time for other stakeholders in the process, such as congressional incumbents to testify or at least weigh in on the new geographic composition of the new map. Also, the plaintiffs and the public need a chance to express their views before the legislature as well.
Further complicating matters, there are more than 60 individuals who have announced (and more may still announce) that they are running in congressional races in the state. They have poured time and resources into the campaigns and it might turn out that they don’t even live in the districts they plan to run in.
Bottom line: the Supreme Court, righting one wrong, has created another. While rightly tackling Pennsylvania’s horribly gerrymandered congressional districts, they have unwisely unleashed an inherently unstable process that creates more problems than it solves. Fortunately, the court still has time to accomplish its original noble goal by extending the time frame to produce a new map by an additional 30-45 days.
Yes, this means the May 15th primary should be moved into June –and yes, a lot of important people in Harrisburg are going to be inconvenienced by that. But a congressional redistricting process that has robbed them of the right to fair elections for almost a decade is inconveniencing a lot more Pennsylvanians – about 12 million more.
We seem on the verge of fixing that. Let’s do it right