Democrats Play Hardball in Pennsylvania

I have mixed feelings about the brouhaha in my home state of Pennsylvania over drawing fair congressional maps. The state’s Supreme Court, which has a Democratic majority, decided to play hardball and declare the existing maps in violation of the state constitution. Just a quick glance at the odd, and in some cases meandering, districts currently in use will confirm that they’re absurdly gerrymandered. When you consider Pennsylvania’s political geography, it is clear that they’re gerrymandered to benefit the Republican Party. I don’t know how or why it is suddenly unconstitutional to draw district maps to benefit your own party, but some arbitrary line seems to have been crossed. The state’s Supreme Court took particular offense to examples where the GOP divided counties, cities, incorporated towns, boroughs, townships, or wards. So, they demanded that the legislature provide new maps that place more emphasis on making compact districts in “contiguous territory.”

The GOP, which controls the legislature, grumbled about this court order; some members even suggested that they might impeach all the Democrats on the Supreme Court. (Theoretically, they have the raw majorities required to do this.) Instead, they produced a new map that eliminates the most ridiculous looking districts and gives more heed to keeping cities, towns, and wards whole. The problem is that the governor, Tom Wolf, is a Democrat, and the Supreme Court gave him veto power. Wolf has declared the new map as badly gerrymandered as the old one, which means that the Court will appoint an independent expert, Professor Nathaniel Persily of Stanford University, to divide the districts.

To be clear, I’ve had enough of watching the Republicans ignore norms and abuse processes in order to give themselves an unfair advantage in elections. I’ve seen them create a “nontroversy” around in-person voter fraud and then impose voter ID laws meant to disproportionately disenfranchise Democratic voters. On one hand, I feel it’s about time that the Democrats fight back. On the other, I don’t like seeing a party use their raw majority on a court to impose their political will on the state legislature. And that’s how I see this, because districts have been gerrymandered or drawn to benefit certain politicians since the beginning of time.

But more than my ambivalence about the court’s power play, here, I don’t think it will really benefit the Democrats that much. But more to the point, I don’t think it will really benefit the Democrats. That’s because a state like Pennsylvania, where the voters were split fifty-fifty between Clinton and Trump, should actually have more Republican representatives due to the way the voters are distributed. Most Democratic votes in Pennsylvania come from the southeast corner of the state, which includes Philadelphia. The Dems also do well in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh. There are some other cities of modest size where the Democrats pick up chunks of votes, and some college towns where they dominate. But geographically, it isn’t possible to draw maps that create parity based on contiguous territory and undivided cities. In fact, the only reason this is currently considered anything but laughable is because the Dems have gained the upper hand in the suburbs of the two big cities, making it possible for them to win some districts that, historically, have been among the most reliably Republican in the country.

When the Republicans came back with their revised maps for the Supreme Court, the basic predicted result was almost unchanged. They were likely conceding the suburban 7th congressional district in the Philadelphia suburbs, but otherwise they had the same advantage as before. An independent analysis by Brian Amos of the University of Florida found that twelve of the state’s eighteen districts would still be Trump territory and the average margins would change “a little over four points.”

So, under the revised maps that Gov. Tom Wolf rejected, the split would go from 12-6 Republican to (probably) 11-7 Republican, which seems about right. Given the problems the Republicans are currently having in the suburbs, they could lose an additional seat based in Bucks County. Under the revision, another vulnerable district (my own), based in Chester County, would probably go from lean-GOP to safe-GOP. Add it all up, and we’re looking at something like a 11-7 or 10-8 win for the GOP.

Now, when an independent analyst comes in and decides to redraw these districts without any regard for partisan advantage, I suspect he is going to produce something where the Democrats, if they have a very good election cycle, can hope to win seven or eight of the eighteen seats. An even nine-nine split is possible, but only in a perfect storm, and it’s not likely to be sustainable.

This upper limit is a result of a realignment that is a kind of natural gerrymander. Where Democrats exist, they exist in large numbers and have huge majorities. Therefore, the only way to avoid a bunch of wasted votes (where they win 90% of the votes in a district when 50%+1 would have been sufficient) is to divide their communities and split them into several districts. But the state’s Supreme Court considers that kind of move to be unconstitutional. Or, at least, they consider it unconstitutional when the Republicans do it.

I’ll be honest. The Democrats are in position to win a few seats back in Pennsylvania based purely on the politics of the moment. New maps will make it look like a partisan Supreme Court accomplished this rather than the Democratic candidates and organizers on the ground. But the result probably won’t be too different. My guess is that at best the Democrats will be gifted one extra seat based on an independent map drawn by Prof. Nathaniel Persily of Stanford. The biggest advantage will probably come in 2020 when the wind might not be at the Democrats’ backs and they’ll have an easier time defending what they’ve won.

This just seems like a lot of raw, partisan controversy and politicization of the high court in order to get very little advantage. But this kind of thing hasn’t bothered the GOP lately, so my criticism of the Dems here is a bit muted.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.