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Challenges to Political Gerrymandering Seek Redistricting Change in Pennsylvania

July 20th, 2017

By John Bielski

Challenges to Political Gerrymandering Seek Redistricting Change in PennsylvaniaThe Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Supreme Court will hear separate cases challenging political gerrymandering in the states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, respectively. In both League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (League) and Whitford v. Gill (Whitford), the plaintiffs assert that political gerrymandering of legislative districts by Republican-controlled state legislatures in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin violated the state or federal constitution.

On June 15, 2017, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania along with 18 plaintiffs filed suit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and multiple statewide governmental officials. The suit alleges that the Congressional redistricting map enacted by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in 2011 after the 2010 U.S. Census (the PA Plan) resulted in a redistricting map for Congressional districts that is hyper-partisan and in violation of provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Plaintiffs seek, in part, an injunction to either require the General Assembly to redraw the Congressional districts or have the Commonwealth Court do so if they refuse.

In League, plaintiffs painstakingly describe how the Pennsylvania General Assembly enacted one of the most politically-partisan Congressional redistricting maps in the nation, resulting in Republicans guaranteed to win 13 of the state’s 18 Congressional districts. Despite receiving between 45 and 50 percent of the statewide Congressional votes over the last three Congressional elections (2012, 2014 and 2015), the Democrats were effectively barred from ever winning more than five Congressional seats. The PA Plan achieves this result by packing Democrats into a handful of Democratic-majority districts and placing other Democratic areas in newly- drawn districts that are overwhelmingly majority Republican.

The Pennsylvania case is particularly relevant and interesting because, rather than relying upon the U.S. Constitution, the League plaintiffs assert that the PA Plan violates several provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The lawsuit asserts that the General Assembly violated the state constitutional rights of the 18 individual plaintiffs, including their rights to free expression, free association, equal protection, and free and equal elections. It is expected that resolution of this matter will take at least a year if not longer.

Less than a week after League was filed, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of a case involving the political gerrymandering of state House seats by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature. Although Wisconsin is politically-divided with approximately the same number of Republican and Democratic voters, the Wisconsin legislature adopted a redistricting plan in 2011 (Wisconsin Plan) that resulted in the Republicans winning 60 and over of the 99 state House seats in the last three elections. This result was achieved despite receiving either less than a majority of the statewide vote in 2012 or just slightly more in 2014 and 2016. These majorities were achieved in the same manner obtained through the PA Plan.

Plaintiffs in Whitford challenged the partisan nature of the Wisconsin Plan in federal court, despite the federal judiciary’s reluctance to decide such matters without a clear standard for identifying political gerrymandering. Relying upon a mathematical and statistical analysis to demonstrate that the Wisconsin Plan constituted intentional political gerrymandering in violation of the U.S. Constitution, a three-judge federal panel agreed with plaintiffs, finding in their favor, but delaying the appropriate remedy. The defendants requested review by the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted the request on June 19, 2017, and the Court will decide the matter sometime next year.


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