September 11, 2017

By: Whitney Snyder

In June 2017, The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, et al. sued the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (including the Governor, the General Assembly, the Secretary of State, and the Commissioner of the Bureau of Commissions, Elections, and Legislation of the Department of State) to stop partisan gerrymandering.  As the first paragraph of the petition explains:

This case is about one of the greatest threats to American democracy today: partisan gerrymandering. A partisan gerrymander occurs when the political party in control of redistricting redraws congressional or state legislative districts to entrench that party in power and prevent voters affiliated with the minority party from electing candidates of their choice. The result is that general election outcomes are rigged—they are predetermined by partisan actors sitting behind a computer, not by the candidates, and not by the voters.

The petition was filed in the Commonwealth Court’s original jurisdiction at Docket No. 261 MD 2017, and alleges Pennsylvania’s 2011 voting district design violates Democrat petitioners’ Pennsylvania constitutional rights to free expression and association and equal protection.  Petitioners request the court block the state from using the 2011 map in future elections and enjoin the General Assembly from considering political data in designing future districts where such use would penalize or burden voters based on their political beliefs.

In this multipart series, Pennsylvania Appellate Adovocate will explore the facts and procedure of the lawsuit making its way through PA’s appellate courts, gerrymandering precedent of appellate courts, and the interplay with a similar battle over Wisconsin’s voting districts pending before the Supreme Court of the United States in Gill v. Whitford.  PAA plans to live tweet the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court oral argument on October 3 and Commonwealth Court oral argument on October 4 regarding whether the court should stay the LWV v. PA proceeding pending the outcome of Gill v. Whitford – remember to follow us on Twitter to join the conversation.

Part 1: Goofy Kicking Donald Duck (PA’s Gerrymandered Districts)

The General Assembly redesigns voting districts every ten years.  In the 2011 redistricting, the Republican controlled General Assembly drew new lines across the state that determine whose votes count where.  The petition in LWV v. PA invokes the intrigue of a political conspiracy thriller when it alleges Republicans developed the 2011 plan under codename REDMAP with the intent to “solidify conservative policymaking at the state level and maintain a Republican stronghold in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade” behind closed doors, even going so far as to secretively introduce the bill as “an empty shell,” in which the actual descriptions of the congressional districts were not added until the morning of the day of the vote on the bill.

The pictures of the redistricted legislative boundaries and the claimed results of the redistricting that the Petition describes demonstrate the supposed reason for the Republican dominated General Assembly’s allegedly clandestine behavior:

Pennsylvania’s Sixth District (“Florida”)

Pennsylvania’s Twelfth District (“Boot of Italy”)

Pennsylvania’s Seventh District (“the infamous Goofy Kicking Donald Duck”)

And, the full “crazy quilt” of PA Voting Districts

The Petition contends the 2011 the General Assembly designed voting districts with something other than population, convenience, political boundaries, or geography in mind.  It alleges the crazy quilt was designed to “pack” and “crack” Democrat votes.

Packing:  “concentrating one party’s backers in a few districts that they win by overwhelming margins to minimize the party’s votes elsewhere”

Cracking:  “dividing a party’s supporters among multiple districts so that they fall short of a majority in each district”

According to the petition, the redistricting achieved Republican’s intended results.  For example, the petition walks through 2012 congressional election results, showing that where Democrats won (which was in a minority of districts), they won by an overwhelming majority, and that Republicans won by a much smaller majority but in a larger number of districts, resulting in a greater overall number of Republican congress people.  Thus, the petition explains that even though the state-wide Democrat/Republican population split was approximately 50/50, Republicans ended up with more elected congress people because they won more districts due to cracking and packing.

While the petition contends that PA’s districts have been gerrymandered, redistricting presents unique evidentiary and separation of powers issues posing significant hurdles to the lawsuit.  Join us again next week as we explore the concept of justiciability:  whether courts can or should do anything about partisan gerrymandering.

Until our next installment:

  • The Brennan Center for Justice posts the key Commonwealth Court documents here, and
  • SCOTUSblog coverage of Gill v. Whitford here.

** All quotes and images appearing in this blog are sourced from the Petition for Review in League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, et al. v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Docket No. 261 MD 2017 (Pa. Cmwlth. filed Jun. 15, 2017).

About the Author:  

Whitney Snyder, attorney at Hawke, McKeon & Sniscak, LLP, represents clients in wide-ranging appellate matters in state and federal court.  Her practice focuses primarily on administrative agency appeals and litigation.  Prior to joining the firm Whitney interned at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.