Group files suit, claims GOP stacked deck in districts.
The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit June 15 challenging a 2011 congressional redistricting that the organization claims created “safe” districts for Republican candidates while disenfranchising Democrats.
“By any measure, Pennsylvania’s congressional map is among the top three starkest partisan gerrymanders in the country,” said Mimi McKenzie, legal director of the Public Interest Law Center representing the League. “This map was drawn to ensure that our general elections will be decided before voters even go to the polls on Election Day.”
The suit, filed in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, alleges two claims under the state Constitution for violations of the Free Expression and Association Clause and Free and Equal Clause, the state-level equivalents of the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The petition names the Pennsylvania General Assembly; Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. Michael Stack, both Democrats; House Speaker Michael Turzai, R-28, of Marshall Township; Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-25, of Brockway; Secretary of the Commonwealth Pedro Cortés; and Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation Commissioner Jonathan Marks as respondents.
McKenzie said those respondents are not necessarily the same responsible for drawing the boundaries in 2011, but would be tasked with charting the new electoral map if the lawsuit is successful.
Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said the governor has not had an opportunity to review the suit yet, but believes the redistricting process should be fair and transparent. Turzai and Scarnati did not return calls for comment.
Congressional districts are redrawn every 10 years by members of the state Legislature and the governor has veto power over the resulting plan. In 2011, said McKenzie, both branches were controlled by Republicans.
McKenzie added that the bill for redistricting when submitted in September 2011 was essentially a blank shell that was only filled in when it was voted on Dec. 14.
“There was no transparency whatsoever,” said McKenzie. “There was no time for public comment or outrage or any of that.”
The petitioners are voters from all 18 districts – including Mary Elizabeth Lawn, of Chester – who allege the current congressional map was designed by “packing” as many Democratic voters as possible into Pennsylvania’s 1st, 2nd, 13th, 14th and 17th districts, while “cracking” the remainder by spreading them among the remaining 13 districts.
The complaint indicates statistical analysis and computer modeling of the map demonstrates that it could not have been the result of traditional redistricting criteria, such as contiguity and compactness, but could only have resulted only from “impermissible partisan intent.” Examples identified in the complaint include the Democratic stronghold of Reading, which was carved out of the 6th District and placed into the majority Republican 16th. Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Easton were similarly lumped together into the 17th District so as not to disturb the 11th District, while portions of Chester were carved out of the 7th District and placed in the reliably Democratic 1st District, according to the complaint.
The 7th District has been maligned as one of the 10 worst gerrymandered in the country by the Washington Post, which described its odd shape as “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.” Others, such as the 12th District “could be mistaken for the boot of Italy,” while the 6th “resembles the State of Florida,” the complaint says.
“These shapes lay bare the lengths that Republicans went to deny petitioners and millions of other voters their constitutional rights and to lock in an artificial political advantage for Republicans,” according to the suit. A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, R-7, of Chadds Ford, declined comment. Representatives for U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, D-1, of Philadelphia, did not respond to a request for comment.
The complaint notes that Republicans won 49 percent of the statewide vote in 2012, but secured 72 percent of the statewide seats with 13 of 18 congressional districts. Democrats who took more than 50 percent of the statewide vote secured the remaining five seats, according to the complaint. This trend continued in 2014 and 2016, even though Republican candidates won only 55 percent and 54 percent of the statewide vote in those elections, the suit says. “Pennsylvania’s leaders were deliberate and successful in discriminating against voters when they designed this map,” said Lawn, who resides in the 7th District, in a release. “After decades of living in one district, in 2011 my community was split up into multiple districts and now members of my community are basically casting wasted votes.”
The lawsuit asks the court to declare the 2011 map unconstitutional and order a new map to be created. McKenzie said that could be accomplished through the appointment of a special master or by having both parties submit alternative maps that could then be put to the general assembly.
McKenzie noted similar lawsuits have been filed against Republicans in North Carolina and Democrats in Maryland. The U.S. Supreme Court is also poised to take on a gerrymandering case in Wisconsin that could impact how states nationwide draw their boundaries.
“I think this is an issue that all voters should care about,” McKenzie said. “Whether it’s gerrymandered in favor of Republicans or gerrymandered in favor of Democrats, it presents a threat to democracy, and so it’s not a one party issue.”