Can Pennsylvania Be Un-Gerrymandered?

Creating a fair Congressional District map in Pennsylvania is harder than it looks.

Last week Pennsylvania Republicans submitted a new Congressional district map proposal to the Governor for consideration. They had sought a delay but the Federal Supreme Court denied the request. The submission of the new map came in just a few hours before the deadline set by the State’s Supreme Court when they ruled in January that Pennsylvania’s current map did not give voters access to “free and equal elections”.

This conclusion that was not hard to reach; the current map was aggressively gerrymandered in order to keep as many democratic voters as possible in the smallest possible number of districts. And it worked, Democratic voters currently make up about half of Pennsylvania’s population but Pennsylvania’s Representatives in the U.S. House are 12 Republicans and 6 Democrats. This is a pretty extreme case of gerrymandering but it’s not the worst. North Carolina is also about 50/50 Republican and Democrat, but because of wildly gerrymandered districts Republicans fill 10 of the state’s 13 Congressional seats.

In order to achieve the current level of political imparity in Pennsylvania the map had to be drawn with no regard for county lines, community boundaries, or any other logical guidelines for districting. The districts have bizarre shapes and have nicknames like “cartoon moose” and “Donald duck kicking Goofy” One of the districts has an area so narrow that it is the width of one building.

The new map submitted last Friday appears to be a dramatic improvement; it creates districts that more closely break along county lines and other municipal boundaries. But the numbers tell a different story, Democratic voters would still be corralled in a small number of districts. In fact this new map may not even change the party makeup of the State’s Congressional Delegation so Pennsylvania Democratic voters would still be under represented in their Government.

Part of the problem is that right now Republicans control Pennsylvania’s state legislature as well, and they were the ones responsible for creating the new map. The drafters of the new map maintain that no party data was used in creating it. But people who are intimately familiar with the state and it’s party breakdown by location wouldn’t necessarily need to reference data in order to make a map that skewed in favor of one party or another.

Another issue is simply that many urban voters tend to be Democrats. This means that a lot of democratic voters are heavily concentrated in geographically small areas that it doesn’t really make sense to break up into multiple districts. Republican voters tend to be more spread out and have majority in districts that are more mixed. This situation isn’t unique to Pennsylvania of course. From New York to Texas to California rural counties are frequently red while our cities are blue. But just because different voters tend to live in different types of areas doesn’t mean it’s impossible to create a fair, or at least fairer, district map, even in Pennsylvania.

Today Pennsylvania’s Governor rejected the proposed map and sent Republicans back to the drawing board. It’s unlikely that even if they tried they could create a map that would give Pennsylvania Democrats an equal number of Congressional Seats, but a map that shifts one or two seats to Democrats is definitely a possibility and would be an improvement for Pennsylvania Democrats and for anyone else who believes in fair representation.

It’s a big ask given the current structure. But if Penn achieves creating a “fairer” map, other states can learn from the journey to get there. But then again, what is “fair”? What’s the criteria for evaluation?

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It's a good question, there are of course legal criteria that district maps are supposed to meet, but are those necessarily fair? Even if there is no way to define or achieve perfect maps, Pennsylvania's districts can certainly be more fair. And as you say if changes can be made there it could be a roadmap for places like North Carolina, and elsewhere.