The End of Gerrymandering

Two Pennsylvania court cases could end partisan political districts—possibly even in time for the 2018 elections.

Illustration by Michael Wohlberg

Illustration by Michael Wohlberg

By Kyle Bagenstose

The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania tackles a long list of pressing issues: drilling in the Marcellus shale, child welfare, collective bargaining and campaign finance among them.

But more than any other, it is gerrymandering—the political process of drawing uneven election maps to heavily favor one party—that sets off alarm bells for league vice president and Chester County native Carol Kuniholm.

“The system is broken, and democracy is dying in Pennsylvania if we don’t fix it,” Kuniholm said.

Gerrymandering is such an important topic for the league that in 2016 members helped launch Fair Districts PA, an organization fighting for competitive elections. Kuniholm serves as chair and says the organization is closely watching two ongoing court cases that, if the pieces fall into place, could require a redraw of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional districts ahead of next fall’s general elections.

“Normally, the courts don’t involve themselves in a legislative process. It will be interesting to see what happens,” she said.

Also following closely is Michael Li, senior redistrict counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

Li points out that even though Pennsylvania is a closely contested state, usually voting about 50-50 in statewide elections, Republicans hold a 13-to-5 edge in congressional districts. But he’s more troubled by the noncompetitiveness in recent elections.

“The problem is not only the 13-5, but that it’s locked in,” Li said.

Li explains that although gerrymandering has existed for more than 200 years, new technologies now allow politicians to use “surgical” precision in redrawing maps. A redraw by Pennsylvania Republicans in between the 2010 and 2012 elections provides evidence.

In the first election, 51 percent of Pennsylvania voters picked Republicans and 47 percent picked Democrats. Power flipped, with the Republicans gaining five seats for a total of 12.

Two years later Democrats surged back, winning 50 percent of the vote to the Republicans’ 48 percent. But Democrats actually lost a district, and haven’t won one since.

Having seen enough, the League of Women Voters filed suit against the state this year. What happened next was highly unusual: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to fast track the suit and require a lower court judge to render a decision by Dec. 31. Even if the court favors state Republican leaders contesting the suit, the state Supreme Court could overrule it.

“The question becomes, ‘How can you undo [gerrymandering]?’” Li said.

Because primaries would start in the spring, a likely route would be to put in place an independent “special master” to redraw the lines for the 2018 elections, Li said. The court could also favor a request from the league to make new rules for legislators for future redistricting efforts, such as not allowing the use of party registration data in the process.

“The long-term solution is an independent commission,” Kuniholm added.

Should both courts rule in favor of state Republicans, there’s a second, federal gerrymandering case brought by five Pennsylvania voters that began in December. But Li thinks it’s a long shot, as it argues “that you can’t have any partisanship at all” during redrawing, he says.

“This has not been tried before,” Li said. “It potentially opens the door in a way that the U.S. Supreme Court might not be comfortable with... where literally any map is challengeable.”

By June, both suits could be moot, depending on how the Supreme Court rules on a third suit, Gill v. Whitford. The landmark case out of Wisconsin could make highly partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional nationwide. Although the Supreme Court has heard gerrymandering cases in the past and declined to curb it, Li believes new data and mapping technologies allow a higher level of scrutiny that could turn the tide.

Should all fail, Kuniholm says there will be one consolation. Through court documents, she says the public will learn what kinds of conversations went on in 2011 when Pennsylvania Republicans redrew the maps.

“I want people to see these are the names of the people who sat in a room and deliberately denied millions of Pennsylvanians a fair, free vote,” she said. “No matter what the decision in these cases, that information will be made public.”

In the wake of the election, Pennsylvania environmental organizers take stock

A Renewed Commitment

by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

In the days after President-elect Donald Trump won a narrow victory in Pennsylvania, statewide environmental group PennFuture gathered a who’s who of past and future advocates in downtown Philadelphia. In attendance were three former heads of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, current state Assembly members, myriad leaders and activists in the movement, and supporter Sen. Bob Casey. Casey reminded the audience that Pennsylvania’s constitution includes, “a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.”

The packed room of still-in-shock advocates heard from several panels of the politicians and organizers present, who analyzed the election results and asked the question, “Where do we go from here?” Common themes were the importance of continued organizing—especially in the parts of the state where there isn’t strong support on environmental issues—raising more money and getting more progressive candidates to run for office.

Grid asked several statewide environmental groups what was next for them as they regroup after the election. (Among them was the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, which declined to comment for this article.)

Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania
Josh McNeil
Executive Director
At its highest levels, the executive branch of the United States government just declared itself an enemy to clean air, clean water and clean energy—the legislative branch was already there. The most powerful man in the world has surrounded himself with oil executives and their political puppets, creating a Cabinet that believes that Grid readers are dangerous radicals who threaten the profits of the world’s largest companies.  

We only win this fight—we only survive this fight—if environmentalists start thinking big. We can’t win with 100,000 members in Pennsylvania. We need 1 million members and 10,000 high-level volunteers. We can’t win with $500,000 budgets; we need to spend millions to hold elected officials accountable.

We need to work together better and to embrace existing strengths. PennFuture has the most effective policy team in Harrisburg, so we’ll follow their lead in the state Legislature. Sierra Club has the widest network of volunteers, so we’re going to support their organizing efforts.

At Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, we know that good laws come from good lawmakers. By the next election, and with the help of concerned citizens, we will have raised more money to help elect pro-environment candidates than any group in Pennsylvania’s history.

Larry Schweiger
President and CEO
Change is imminent. In the new political alignment, where carbon polluters will be menacing and overriding environmental protections, the environmental community must unite and broaden its reach. We must increasingly engage those residing outside of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and listen to rural constituents to create new relationships and deepen our impact. PennFuture recognizes this and is embarking on a new path to better serve and equip the constituents in the commonwealth. The community needs to innovate, retool and change its approach to expand this critical conversation and its influence. 

In the coming weeks, we will announce new alliances and look forward to building a stronger environmental base to hold policymakers accountable. In the face of urgent threats, we must remain true to our mission by leading the transition to a clean energy economy. We must defend our air, water and land, and empower citizens to build sustainable communities. 

David Masur 
Executive Director
Election Day 2016 reminded us that we must remain vigilant and engaged to promote the positive change we want to see in the world. From day one, PennEnvironment has known that we can’t compete with the money, access or influence that polluters and powerful special interests infuse into our political process. But we know that we have the public’s support for protections for clean air, clean water and preserving the places we love. Over the next few years there will be a David vs. Goliath fight that revolves around what we stand for when it comes to defending our environment and the legacy we leave for our children and future generations, and PennEnvironment will be doubling down on educating, mobilizing and engaging our members and concerned Pennsylvanians to stand up, speak truth to power and do what we need to do to defend 50 years of cornerstone environmental protections.

Sierra Club
Joanne Kilgour
Director, Pennsylvania Chapter
As a professional woman, this election hurt—it was a reminder that our society is fraught with injustice. Women, people of color, Muslims, immigrants, trans folks, the disabled—millions of Americans continue to be marginalized, with our very lives at stake. As the state director of an environmental organization, I am also deeply concerned about living under the only head of state in the world to reject the scientific consensus that mankind is driving climate change.

Many of the people and places we love are threatened, and our communities may feel more divided than ever, but we must resist the temptation to fight for just a single issue and work instead to dismantle the systems of oppression that underlay them all. Our lives and our lived experiences are as complex and varied as the social identities that define us, so our strategy must not be built around the environment alone, and our organizing must be intersectional—it must also be honest, deep and based in compassion.

Intersections: Money Matters

If Philadelphia hopes to become one of the greenest cities in America, now is the time. Thanks to two multi-million dollar grants from the federal government (distributed as part of President Obama’s Recovery Act), Philly is embarking on initiatives that will create green jobs, address energy concerns and offer sustainable solutions to some of the city’s longtime problems.
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