On Monday, Pennsylvania's Supreme Court issued a new congressional map. The decision has generated a lot of questions from voters who wonder how we got into this mess and what it means for the ballot. We tried to answer some of those questions below.
What is a congressional district?
To understand a congressional district, first we have to understand the House of Representatives. It currently comprises 435 members who each serve two-year terms. The current number of representatives was set by Congress in 1911 and has been in effect since 1913.
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The number of representatives in each state is based on the population of that state, determined every 10 years by the U.S. Census. Pennsylvania has 18 districts and, therefore, 18 representatives.
The constitution did not offer guidance on how representatives should be elected. That came later. An apportionment act of 1842 stated that representatives "should be elected by districts composed of contiguous territory equal in number to the number of representatives to which said state may be entitled, no one district electing more than one representative."
What is gerrymandering?
It refers to the practice of drawing districts with the intention of giving one political party an advantage over another. The word “gerrymander” originated in 1812 when former Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry did just that. The result was a district that looked like a salamander.
Pennsylvania’s infamously gerrymandered districts are not much better. Check out the area dubbed “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck.” Formerly the 7th district, it includes portions of Delaware, Chester, Montgomery, Berks and Lancaster counties and is represented by Republican Rep. Pat Meehan. His seat is now up for grabs.
FYI, Gerrymandering is not illegal. Both major political parties have used it for their own gains.
How did we get here?
In Pennsylvania, districts are drawn by a committee comprising two Democrats, two Republicans and a fifth person selected by the other four members. If the two parties cannot agree, the state supreme court will appoint the fifth chair. Once a map is drawn, the state legislator votes on it and then the governor signs off.
This means that whichever party holds more seats and the governor’s office controls the fate of congressional districts.
The current brouhaha in Pennsylvania can be traced to the 2010 elections when Republicans gained a five-seat majority and the governor’s seat. They redrew congressional districts, unveiled them in 2011 and the map was approved along party lines. Only Republican Rep. Mike Folmer voted against it, saying at the time it was a “clear-cut case of politicians picking their voters in order to prevent voters from having a meaningful opportunity to pick their elected officials."
Fast toward to present day. With the midterm elections just one year away, Democrats mounted an attack against the 2011 map, which they claimed gave Republicans an unfair advantage. The League of Women Voters sued in June 2017 and won.
Last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that district boundaries unconstitutionally put partisan interests above neutral line-drawing criteria, such as keeping districts compact and eliminating municipal and county divisions.
It's the first time a state court threw out congressional boundaries in a partisan gerrymandering case.
"It remedies the outrageous gerrymander of 2011, and that's the important thing, that the gerrymander be over," said David Landau, the Democratic Party chairman of Delaware County. "All that zigging and zagging is all gone, and it makes Delaware County a competitive seat now."
How were the new districts drawn?
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court used independent map experts from around the country to create the new version. They followed county lines more closely and kept urban and rural communities together rather than separating them, like the previous map did.
How does this affect me?
If you live in the Philadelphia suburbs, you likely live in a new district and will be voting on new representatives later this year. Residents of the former Goofy Kicking Donald Duck district should pay special attention to the new boundaries (see above).
The Pennsylvania Department of State is already making the necessary steps to implement the new map in time for the upcoming elections.
Over the next few days, additional information will be provided with updated election information.
“Voters will not see any changes in individual polling places and these changes do not in any way affect voters’ polling places,” Secretary of State Robert Torres said. “Nor will there be any change in the rules in effect at polling places.”
The department will release spreadsheets for voters to check the updated congressional districts and better see new boundaries.
What’s at stake?
The map of Pennsylvania's 18 congressional districts is to be in effect for the May 15 primary.
Most significantly, the new map gives Democrats a better shot at winning a couple more seats, particularly in Philadelphia's heavily populated and moderate suburbs.
The new map repackages districts that had been stretched nearly halfway across Pennsylvania and reunifies Democratic-heavy cities that had been split by Republican map drawers.
Meanwhile, sitting congressmen, dozens of would-be candidates and millions of voters must sort out which district they live in barely a month before the candidates' deadline to submit paperwork to run.
Some races are wide open: There are six incumbents elected in 2016 not running again, the most in four decades. The new map also has immediate implications for some incumbents.
Republican Rep. Ryan Costello, whose suburban Philadelphia district was narrowly won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, is in even more dire straits now that his district adds the heavily Democratic city of Reading.
The map also removes the heart of one district from Philadelphia, where a crowd of candidates had assembled to replace the retiring Democratic Rep. Bob Brady, and moves it to suburban Montgomery County.
The new map does not apply to the March 13 special congressional election in the 18th District to fill the remaining 10 months in the term of former Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned amid an abortion scandal. But the winner will have a short stay in the seat unless they move: the court's map puts both candidates' homes in districts with a Pittsburgh-area incumbent.
Republicans were quick to make their own declaration Tuesday and announced they will be suing in federal court later this week.
But Republicans appear to face an uphill battle in federal court.
Michael Morley, a constitutional law professor at Barry University in Florida, said federal courts are normally reluctant to undo a state court decision.
"I think it will be a major obstacle and a major challenge to get around it," Morley said.
Are there any alternatives to this legal mess?
Fair District PA has two measures - House Bill 722 and Senate Bill 22- in committee that would replace the current system. Instead of party leaders drawing congressional maps, a bipartisan, independent citizen committee would determine districts. California, Arizona and several other states have similar systems in place.