Pennsylvania Capitol

Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol building Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, in Harrisburg.

HARRISBURG – A state Supreme Court decision made gerrymandering one of the dominant stories in Pennsylvania politics in 2018.

The ruling, which forced a change in the state's congressional district map, led to a dramatic shift in Pennsylvania's 18-member Congressional delegation with Democrats picking up four seats.

Now, attention is turning to the state legislative maps, deemed 11th worst in the nation according to a new analysis by the Associated Press. The Supreme Court case didn’t change the way state legislative maps are drawn.

That ranking is based on what's know as efficiency gap, the most commonly cited measure used by experts studying gerrymandering. The efficiency gap is a measure of how many votes are wasted by being placed in districts where the races that aren't competitive.

The state's  Supreme Court justices created their own congressional map for the 2018 election, and the Democrats picked up four seats to give the state’s Congressional delegation a 9-9 split between the two parties. Under the old maps, Republicans held 13 seats.

The Associated Press analysis concluded that the efficiency gap in the state’s Congressional races was 16.23 in 2016 but that was cut to 7.26 in 2018 under the maps created by the court. Even so, the report's data suggested that Democrats should have won 10 seats, based on voting turnout.

For advocates of redistricting reform, the 2018 election results were concrete proof that if fair maps are used, the races will more closely reflect the will of voters, said Carol Kuniholm, chairwoman of Fair Districts PA.

“That demonstrates that maps matter,” she said.

Her group has been leading the statewide push for a long-term solution to prevent gerrymandering by getting an independent commission created to draw the maps.

Under current law, the state legislative districts are drawn by the legislative leaders in the House and Senate and a fifth tie-breaking member. The Congressional maps are set in a piece of legislation passed by the General Assembly and approved or vetoed by the governor.

Changing the way state legislative maps are drawn will be an important step in holding state lawmakers accountable when they fail to act on issues that most members of the public support, she said.

 The AP analysis found that the existing state legislative map is skewed to benefit Republicans, giving them almost 14 more seats than they should have based on voting patterns.

As a result, Pennsylvania was one of five states in which Republicans won the majority of seats in the state House despite the fact that voters cast more votes for Democrats in legislative races across the state. The others included Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

Reform efforts

The issue will likely be getting more attention in the coming weeks. Wolf signed an executive order last November creating a redistricting reform commission to come up with recommendations about how the state might change the way both the legislative and congressional maps are drawn.

The governor’s order gave the group until August to come up with its findings.

The first meeting of that 15-member group will be April 4 in Williamsport, David Thornburgh, chairman of the reform commission announced on Wednesday.

Eight other meetings are planned: In Erie on April 18; Pittsburgh on May 2; Reading on May 9; Altoona on May 16; Philadelphia on May 28; Bethlehem on May 29 and Wilkes-Barre on June 6. A meeting will also be held in Harrisburg but the date of that event hasn’t been set. All of the sessions will be from 4 to 7 p.m.

Thornburgh on Thursday said those public meetings will provide “an unprecedented opportunity to hear from the people of Pennsylvania” on the issue of redistricting.

Unless something changes though, those meetings will lack input from Republicans in the Legislature. While Wolf’s order calls for having Republicans included on the commission, Republican leaders have balked at participating.

In a statement released at the time Wolf called for the study, Republican legislative leaders said “we will not be props in his theater” and added that redistricting remains their job.

Thornburgh said that if Republicans want to get involved in the group’s work, “the door is open.”

A big part of the reason the Congressional maps following the 2010 ended up so skewed was that there was one-party control with Republican majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly and Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in office, Kuniholm said.

There will be more checks and balances following the 2020 Census because while Republicans retain their majorities in the General Assembly, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf will presumably be in office with veto power to reject any Congressional districting plan that he deems is an illegal gerrymander, Kuniholm said.

That’s one reason that state lawmakers may see fixing the process of drawing the congressional maps as low-hanging fruit. Republicans won’t be able to count on being able control the process so thoroughly in the coming process. It also doesn’t directly impact state lawmakers because it involves the maps for congressional candidates. And thirdly, the process of making the reform will be easier – the change can be made by passing a normal piece of legislation.

Changing the way the state maps are drawn will be considerably more complicated, she said. It directly impacts the lawmakers who will be asked to change the process and it would require a Constitutional amendment.

For a Constitutional amendment to be added, the General Assembly must pass an identical piece of legislation in two consecutive legislative sessions and then the change becomes the subject of a statewide ballot referendum. The earliest any such change could be made to the Constitution would be in 2021, she said.

Advocates will be pushing to get independent commissions created for both the state and federal election maps, Kuniholm said. Part of that strategy will be to seek to get a commission created to begin working on maps for the Congressional maps, because that change is simpler and will take less time. Then, if the Constitution is amended in 2021 to change the redistricting process for the state races, a commission will already be up-and-running and can be used to complete both sets of maps, she said.

“We think it’s doable,” Kuniholm said. “It’s really important.”

The efficiency gap

Gerrymandering experts typically focus on a measure they call the efficiency gap: a term used to describe how parties pack voters into districts to minimize their influence.

In Pennsylvania, where Republicans led the process of designing the maps, that typically meant putting as many Democrats as possible into as few districts as possible. This meant that Republican candidates would have the advantage in more districts even though Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state.

According to the AP analysis, 10 states had more extreme efficiency gaps in the 2018 state legislative races than Pennsylvania.  Wisconsin had the most extreme efficiency gap, followed by South Dakota, Florida, Michigan, Oklahoma, Nevada, Missouri, New York, Ohio, and Indiana.

But because Pennsylvania has the nation’s largest full-time Legislature, the result of the efficiency gap here translated into a larger number of extra seats for Republican state lawmakers. Only Wisconsin and Florida had more extra seats gained through apparent gerrymandering, according to the AP’s data.

The efficiency gap measure was discussed in the state Supreme Court challenge that ultimately led to the state’s highest court creating its own maps for the 2018 congresssional elections.

Among the evidence cited by the justices was the analysis by Christopher Warshaw of George Washington University, who’d concluded that in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, there was little evidence of an efficiency gap in Pennsylvania’s congressional maps. He found that there was a “very modest Republican advantage” in the 2000, but that it jumped dramatically after the maps were redrawn following the 2010 Census.

“The efficiency gap in Pennsylvania in 2012 was the largest in the country for that year, and was the second largest efficiency gap in modern history ‘since one-person, one-vote went into effect in 1972,’” State Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd wrote in the February 2018 opinion explaining the court’s rationale for replacing the congressional maps.

Attorneys for the Republicans who hold the majority in the General Assembly argued in legal documents that the efficiency gap doesn’t take into account the fact that voters might belong to a political party but choose to vote for a candidate of the opposing party. As an example, they pointed to the 2016 presidential election in which President Donald Trump won in counties like Beaver, Cambria, Greene and Fayette even though the majority of voters in those counties were registered as Democrats.

They added that even if one accepts the efficiency gap as a meaningful measure, there’s nothing in the law to suggest what the standard should be to determine how much of a gap is allowed.

That didn’t sway the state Supreme Court, which ruled in January of last year that the congressional maps created after the 22010 Census “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated the state Constitution.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.