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Pennsylvania's top court delivers scathing indictment of political gerrymandering

Washington Post

This week the Pennsylvania Supreme Court released a 139-page opinion detailing why it rejected the state's Republican-drawn congressional districts for "clearly, plainly, and palpably" violating the state's Constitution.

The ruling is a scathing indictment of political gerrymandering, the process by which political parties draw legislative districts to give themselves advantages in statewide elections. The Republican redistricting plan, crafted after the 2010 Census, was "aimed at achieving unfair partisan gain" and "undermines voters' ability to exercise their right to vote in free and 'equal' elections if the term is to be interpreted in any credible way," the court concluded.

By drawing districts in this way, Pennsylvania Republicans "interfere[D] to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage" under the Pennsylvania state Constitution.

Pennsylvania's congressional districts have long been recognized as among the most gerrymandered in the United States. In 2012, Democrats won 51 percent of the statewide popular U.S. House vote, but only 5 out of 18 House seats.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court noted that in all three U.S. House elections held after the redistricting, the partisan makeup of the state's delegation remained exactly the same: Democrats won the same five seats every year, while Republicans won the remaining 13. This despite the Democrats winning between 46 and 51 percent of the statewide popular vote in each election.

Democratic candidates also received much higher margins of victory in their respective districts than their Republican counterparts. In 2016, Democrats won each of their five House seats with an average of 75 percent of the vote, while Republicans' margin of victory was an average of 62 percent across their 13 districts.

This indicates that Democratic voters are much more highly concentrated in their districts, a gerrymandering practice known as "packing." The lawsuit contended that this was deliberate, an attempt by Republicans to pack as many Democratic voters as possible into the smallest number of districts, ensuring large numbers of "wasted" votes in each. The court agreed.

"With regard to individuals living in 'packed' Democratic districts under the Plan, the weight of their votes has been 'substantially diluted,' and their votes have no 'impact on election outcomes,' the court wrote, summarizing the plaintiffs' argument. "By placing such voters in districts where their votes are cast for candidates destined to win (packing), the non-favored party's votes are diluted. It is axiomatic that a diluted vote is not an equal vote, as all voters do not have an equal opportunity to translate their votes into representation. This is the antithesis of a healthy representative democracy."

One key tell that the districts had been gerrymandered: their sprawling, convoluted shapes, drawn to include some voters and exclude others until the optimal partisan imbalance had been achieved.

In technical terms, Pennsylvania's districts are not "compact": the map "reveals tortuously drawn districts that cause plainly unnecessary political subdivision splits. In terms of compactness, a rudimentary review reveals a map comprised of oddly shaped, sprawling districts which wander seemingly arbitrarily across Pennsylvania, leaving 28 counties, 68 political subdivisions, and numerous wards, divided among as many as five congressional districts, in their wakes," the justices wrote.

The most famous of these is District 7, which has been likened to Goofy kicking Donald Duck. "At one point, along Route 30, the district is contiguous only by virtue of a medical facility," the court writes. "At another point, in King of Prussia, it remains connected by a single steak and seafood restaurant."

Relying on expert testimony, the court found that the lack of compactness among all districts and the level of packing observed in Democratic ones couldn't be explained by other factors, like the natural tendency of Democratic voters to cluster in cities.

Redistricting expert Jowei Chen of the University of Michigan testified that he created 500 computer-drawn district maps optimized for Pennsylvania's traditional redistricting criteria of compactness, contiguity and equal population. Among those 500 simulations "the highest number of classified Republican districts was 10, and in none of the simulated plans would 13 of the congressional districts be classified as Republican," Chen found.

"I'm able to conclude with well-over 99.9 percent statistical certainty that the [2011 Plan's] creation of a 13-5 Republican advantage in Pennsylvania's congressional delegation is an outcome that would never have emerged from a districting process adhering to and following traditional districting principles," Chen told the court.

Beyond that, Republicans were unable to articulate any good reasons for how the districts ended up the way they did. "Legislative Respondents failed to identify any legitimate, much less compelling, governmental interest served by drawing the congressional district boundaries to disadvantage Democratic voters," the court found.

In sum, the court found that "in its disregard of the traditional redistricting factors, the 2011 Plan consistently works toward and accomplishes the concentration of the power of historically-Republican voters and, conversely, the corresponding dilution of Petitioners' power to elect their chosen representatives."

As a result, the court has directed the state's legislature to draw a new set of maps that does not violate voters' Constitutional rights to free and equal elections.

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