Pennsylvania Democrats on Thursday submitted their own proposal to redraw the state’s congressional districts after Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf rejected a remedial map drawn up by state Republicans in response to a Supreme Court order.
According to an analysis by The Washington Post, the Democrats' map is more favorable to Democratic House candidates than either Republican-drawn map. But it's also slightly more compact, and it does a better job reflecting the overall partisan makeup of the state.
The three maps can be compared using precinct-level 2016 presidential election returns compiled by cartographers Nathaniel Kelso and Michal Migurski. This allows for a good, but not perfect, approximation of the partisan makeup of each proposed district.
Under Republicans' heavily gerrymandered original map, drawn up after the 2010 Census, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 12 of the state's 18 congressional districts, while Clinton beat Trump in just six.
From a partisan standpoint, the plan submitted by Republicans last week was nearly identical: While it eliminated many of the sprawling shapes that made Pennsylvania districts the target of national ridicule, it still would have created 12 Trump districts and six Clinton ones. The partisan makeup of the state's House delegation would probably have remained the same.
Under the map submitted by Democrats today, that balance would shift slightly: It creates 11 Trump districts and seven Clinton districts. That's closer to the overall partisan balance of the state — in elections since 2012, Democratic House candidates have won a little less than 50 percent of the statewide popular vote, on average.
If you’re wondering why the Democrats’ map isn't something like a 9-to-9 split that would more closely represent the party’s statewide vote share, or even a wild gerrymander giving the Democrats an advantage, that’s because Pennsylvania's electoral geography makes that incredibly difficult to do. When FiveThirtyEight tried to create a maximally gerrymandered map in favor of Democrats earlier this year, the best they could come up with was, in effect, a 9-to-9 split.
To arrive at even that figure, they had to indulge in some creative boundary drawing that would probably not comply with the state Supreme Court’s redistricting criteria, which prioritizes compactness. The primary reason for that is the incredible concentration of Democratic voters in the Philadelphia area. In the city of 1.6 million people, more than 82 percent of voters chose Clinton in the last election. That makes it very difficult to draw districts around the Philadelphia area that don’t “waste” Democratic votes to huge margins of Democratic victory.
That the Democratic map’s 11-to-7 split is below that 9-to-9 “ceiling” suggests that Democrats in the state legislature didn’t simply try to create the bluest possible districts — if they wanted to, in other words, they could have found a way to create a 9-to-9 map. Under the 2011 Republican-drawn map, by contrast, the partisan breakdown of the Pennsylvania House delegation has been 13 to 5 in favor of Republicans in every single election — the same split as the most extreme Republican gerrymander FiveThirtyEight could manage.
It’s also worth noting that the districts in the Democratic map are just a hair more compact than the latest Republican-drawn districts. Sprawling, un-compact districts are often an indicator that some degree of partisan shenanigans were involved in the boundary drawing. That’s why the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated that compactness should be a key criteria in how the new districts are ultimately drawn.
The court is under no obligation to accept either the Democratic or Republican maps. But it is likely to take them under consideration as it works with a third-party redistricting expert, Nathaniel Persily of Stanford University, to draw a final, nonpartisan map. Then, following the 2020 Census, the entire redistricting process will start again.
Pennsylvania voters tired of all the mathematical hairsplitting involved in these discussions should know that they don’t have to settle for letting partisan legislators draw their own districts. A group called Fair Districts PA has been spearheading an effort to change state law to allow a fully independent bipartisan panel to draw the districts, similar to what’s in place in California and Arizona.
That plan has drawn bipartisan support from the legislature. But Carol Kuniholm, the chair of Fair Districts PA, said that Republican leaders have repeatedly stymied efforts to hold hearings on the measure.
“The leadership has not expressed really any hint of interest in this reform,” Kuniholm said. The bill has “a lot of support from both sides, but the leadership has no interest in moving forward.”
A spokesman for Pennsylvania's Senate Republicans, Jenn Kocher, said on Twitter that leadership had been in the process of scheduling hearings on the Fair Districts bill, but the current lawsuit before the state Supreme Court put things on hold. “Leaders continue to state their commitment to reexamine the process for 2021,” she said.
Kuniholm’s group isn't buying this explanation. “We’ve had quite a few lawyers look at [that claim], and they all say it’s nonsense,” she said. “If they would like to do the reform, they can do the reform tomorrow. There’s nothing stopping them.”