Pennsylvania mapmakers are sharpening their pencils this week, because the state is under an extremely tight deadline to redraw gerrymandered electoral districts to meet a court-mandated deadline. It’s a win for voting rights in 2018, and the GOP is not happy about it.
The story starts in 2011, when the Pennsylvania legislature drew up a new district map. Redistricting happens frequently across the US, reflecting changing populations. The process is designed to promote equally proportionate representation — at least in theory.
But the map the legislature produced was extremely partisan and slanted in favor of Republicans, according to some. The New York Times describes the state as “one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation,” and it’s easy to see why, since the state map looks like an explosion at a pretzel factory that went horribly wrong.
So people sued, arguing that the map should be redrawn. And through litigation, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed: The legislature was ordered to redraw the map. Republicans took it to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case, allowing the court ruling to stand.
Here’s where things get really bananas: The state needs to have a restricting map settled and signed by the governor by February 15, or the court will step in and draw one.
The legislature is controlled by Republicans, but the state’s governor is Democratic, so Pennsylvania may see some heated debates in the next few days as both sides jostle for positions — Democrats, after all, have a lot at stake as they fight to regain control of the House, and they’re eager to see districts that favor their interests.
If you’re looking at that deadline and counting off on your fingers, so are state officials. Republicans are furious at the ruling, and they say the changes could “cause chaos” at the upcoming midterms. And this, some might argue, is exactly the point: Fair congressional districts could radically change Pennsylvania’s representation in Congress, thereby more accurately reflecting the state’s residents.
The state has several months before its May primary, when the districts would need to be settled and established to give voters a chance to cast ballots for their preferred representatives.
The newly redrawn map submitted to the governor should include, according to the ruling, districts that are contiguous, and that don’t divide townships in order to shoehorn people of one political inclination or another into specific districts. Instead, congressional districts should be based on population and area, with the goal of getting a reasonably even sampling of residents. Biased maps in either direction aren’t just to residents, who want to be assured that their votes carry weight and hold value — regardless of their political leanings.
In addition to their complaints about “chaos” — though arguably, redrawing districts in time for the midterms will be key to establishing fair representation — Republicans also say there isn’t enough time to do the work. They’re not wrong about some late nights ahead. It’s important to ensure borders are drawn accurately and fairly, though legislators won’t be doing it by hand and will likely have the help of some computer algorithms.
The governor’s response? “I think people have gerrymandered districts in far less time.”