Following the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in late January to strike down the state’s gerrymandered congressional maps ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, the Ash Center sat down with Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy Miles Rapoport to discuss the Court’s decision and its impact on efforts to end partisan redistricting.
Ash Center: For those not familiar with legislative maps in Pennsylvania, how heavily gerrymandered is the state?
Miles Rapoport: The Congressional district map in Pennsylvania has been very heavily gerrymandered to skew the composition of the Pennsylvania Congressional delegation. The state is consistently closely contested in its party vote, but the Congressional delegation has 13 Republicans and 5 Democrats. This led the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters and others to bring the suit last June. On January 22, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled — in an extremely strongly worded decision — that the state’s Congressional districts “clearly, plainly, and palpably” violate Pennsylvania’s state Constitution. The Court ordered the legislature to produce a non-gerrymandered set of districts agreed to by the Governor by February 15, or the Court will draw the districts itself. Those districts will be in use for the elections in November, and in the primaries which take place on May 15.
AC: What separates the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision from other recent gerrymandering cases in the news such as those in Wisconsin and North Carolina?
MR: The suit in Pennsylvania has some of the same elements of argumentation as the Gill v. Whitford case in Wisconsin and cases in North Carolina. However, what sets it apart from those cases is that the Pennsylvania case was brought in state court, alleging that the redistricting maps are a violation of the Pennsylvania State Constitution, not of the US constitution. This could be a very important distinction. The Pennsylvania legislature, the defendants in the decision, have appealed to the US Supreme Court, which, in other cases they have heard, been very reluctant to order short-term changes in the district drawing. However, since the case is based on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Pennsylvania State Constitution, many people think the US Court will be much less likely to intervene and overturn the state court’s order.
AC: If the ruling is allowed to go into effect, what do you think will be the likely outcome this November?
MR: If the ruling goes into effect, a very different set of maps will be used for the elections this coming May and November. It’s obviously difficult to predict outcomes, but several observers have said that this could create a shift of at least three Congressional seats from Republican to Democratic, an outcome made more likely by several Republican retirements and by the potential of a Democratic wave election that could be developing. With 24 seats required to change partisan control, the Pennsylvania case could be an important determinant of who controls the US House in January of 2019.
AC: Though the case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court dealt with the violation of the state’s constitution, does this give added momentum to other efforts to fight gerrymandering around the country?
MR: I think momentum is building towards reform in several different ways. On the judicial front, there are now so many cases where state or federal courts have upheld challenges to maps drawn by state legislatures, that it makes it more likely that the US Supreme Court — which has refused to do this several times before — will set standards, or perhaps ‘guardrails’, against the excesses of partisan gerrymandering. In particular the Pennsylvania case, with its powerful and even acerbic decision, could loom as important. In addition, the publicity generated by these cases has definitely raised public awareness of the issue, and this will increase the likelihood that ballot initiatives (potentially in Ohio and Michigan) will succeed, and even that legislatures will enact reforms in the process that will take them off the hook for the map-drawing that will take place after the 2020 Census and the 2020 state legislative elections.
All in all, we are in a very volatile and changing environment on the issue of gerrymandering, and the next few months, and then the next few years, could see major changes in the processes used for district drawing, and for the outcomes as well.
Miles Rapoport, a longtime organizer, policy advocate, and elected official, is a Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School. Prior to his appointment to the Ash Center, Rapoport was most recently president of the independent grassroots organization Common Cause. For 13 years, he headed the public policy center Demos. Rapoport previously served as Connecticut’s Secretary of the State and a state legislator for ten years in Hartford. He has written, spoken, and organized widely on issues of American democracy.