The other court fight over gerrymandering

Posted by David O'brien on November 21, 2017

“This case is about one of the greatest threats to American democracy today: partisan gerrymandering.” So begins the complaint in a lawsuit challenging a state’s heavily-gerrymandered districting plan.

The case isn’t Gill v. Whitford, the closely-watched challenge to Wisconsin’s state legislative districts currently before the Supreme Court. It’s League of Women Voters, et al. v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (LWV), a case pending in Pennsylvania state court. Unlike Gill, which is a federal suit, LWV was brought in state court and brought under Pennsylvania’s state constitution.

Although success in LWV would be limited to just Pennsylvania districts, it would offer a way forward if the Supreme Court declines to act against partisan gerrymandering in Gill. Even if a First Amendment challenge to gerrymandering isn’t viable, challenges could still be brought under similar provisions in state constitutions. A campaign of state-by-state litigation would be long and costly, but it would offer a path forward after a setback in the Supreme Court.

League of Women Voters is important for another reason. It challenges Pennsylvania’s districts for the U.S. House of Representatives (Gill is a challenge to Wisconsin’s state legislative districts). On Nov. 9, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered the trial court to make all of its findings by Dec. 31, 2017, creating the possibility that new maps could be redrawn before the 2018 midterm elections. Pennsylvania is nearly evenly split between voters who favor Republicans and those who favor Democrats, yet its districts significantly favor Republicans. A new map could reduce the advantage Republicans have going into the 2018 congressional elections in a small but significant way.

Finally, while Gill and LWV offer signs of hope in the struggle to make elections fairer and more representative, they’re still imperfect solutions. The combination of single-winner districts and winner-take-all voting means that large numbers of votes will be wasted regardless of how district lines are drawn, and as long as partisan legislators are responsible for drawing districts, they will seek to maximize the advantage for themselves and their parties.

A comprehensive legislative solution like the Fair Representation Act, which would implement multi-winner districts and ranked choice voting, while placing redistricting in the hands of independent commissions, represents the most effective option for fairer elections and a more representative Congress.

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