Originally Published: June 23, 2017 5:58 a.m.
In the annals of political gerrymandering, Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District is notorious.
Running west through the Philadelphia suburbs, it takes in in a giant chunk of Delaware County, even as it stretches over its shoulder north and east to Montgomery County, before leaning to its south to hug the Delaware state line.
This Rorschach blot of a district is so tortured and arthritic that it even has a nickname, “Goofy Kicking Donald” for its resemblance to the instantly identifiable profiles of the beloved Disney characters.
The district was drawn that way in 2010 to ensure that Republicans took back the seat formerly held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak.
The gambit worked, a former United States Attorney named Pat Meehan has held the seat ever since.
So veteran observers’ ears here perked up at the news that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a potentially game-changing case out of Wisconsin challenging partisan gerrymandering.
“This could be a game-changer,” if the high court decides against Wisconsin, Kyle Kopko, a political science professor at Elizabethtown College, in Lancaster County, said. “It could change the make-up of so many legislative and Congressional District.”
This latest case has its basis in Wisconsin, where a lower court ruled last year that the state’s Congressional maps, crafted by Republican lawmakers and signed into law by GOP Gov. Scott Walker, put Democrats at an illegal disadvantage.
The imbalance was so blatant that, as The Washington Post reports, Republicans won more than 60 percent of the seats in the Wisconsin assembly in 2012, despite only winning slightly less than 47 percent of the popular vote.
The Wisconsin case has a particularly familiar ring for Pennsylvania Democrats.
Despite a massive voter registration edge, Democrats here control just five of the state’s 18 Congressional districts. The other 13 are in solidly Republican hands. And without some kind of intervention (divine or judicial) that appears unlikely to change.
Thanks to the current system, Democrats have a lock, or a secure grip, on at least four of those five seats. The fifth, the Scranton-based 17th District, held by U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, could be on the bubble next year.
The Wisconsin case is also another bite at the legal apple for Pennsylvania Democrats, who came out at the wrong end of a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring that the state’s districts were not unconstitutionally gerrymandered.
In a 5-4 decision, the court rejected the claim of a trio of Democratic voters, Norma Jean and Richard Vieth, and Susan Furey, that the state’s congressional map, as drawn, violated the Constitution’s guarantee of one-man, one-vote, as well as their 14th Amendment right to equal protection.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who ruled against the plaintiffs, wrote that “Since no provision under the constitution limits any political consideration during the process of district mapping by states or the Congress in any way enforceable by the courts, the claims of gerrymandering are non-justiciable. The criterion of ‘fairness’ is not one which can be determined by law.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who joined with the majority in the the Vieth case, was unwilling to close the door entirely, writing that “While no standard to judge gerrymandering claims has yet emerged, this does not mean no standard ever will or can exist.”
So now we’re back to that question in Wisconsin, and the court, for the first time, the court could rule directly on that issue.
“Pennsylvania is one of the states where this will have incredibly relevance,” Christopher Borick, a political science professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., said. “It’s almost a poster child for where a challenge could be posed ... where you have voters voting for one party and it’s not translated into representation.”
The question, of course, is how the court will reach that standard. A pair of academics, Nicholas Stephanopolous and Eric McGhee, think they’ve come up with it.
In a 2015 paper, Stephanopoulos and McGhee posited the “wasted vote” theory, which argued that a “gerrymander is simply a district plan that results in one party wasting many more votes than its adversary.”
“The gerrymandering party enjoys a political advantage not because of its greater popularity, but rather because of the configuration of district lines. The parties do not compete on a level playing field,” they concluded.
There’s a lot of complicated math that goes into the admittedly partisan process of redistricting. And it’s nearly impossible to separate politics from it.
Both Borick and Kopko said they aren’t sure if the nine justices will buy into the challenge to Wisconsin’s map.
“How do you define [gerrymandering]?” Borick mused. “Academics have tried to come up with a better way to determine [district boundaries]. There are so many forces behind it. And now the court will entertain those challenges.”
And the people who live in that Disney-fied district in suburban Philly will be among those watching to see what happens.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.