Voices & Choices

Fair representation is much better for resolving PA gerrymandering

Fair representation is much better for resolving PA gerrymandering

Opponents of gerrymandering have won a hard fought battle in Pennsylvania. There, its 18 congressional districts were among the most obviously and severely gerrymandered - giving Republicans a huge, unfair advantage in a state that is roughly evenly divided between Democratic and Republican voters. In January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court announced that the map violated the rights of Pennsylvania voters and must be replaced. Republicans in Pennsylvania have resisted every way they can: fighting back in court, refusing to comply, and even testing the idea of impeaching the Democratic judges who issued the order. But every such attempt has proven fruitless, and it now appears that Pennsylvania will operate under a new court-ordered map in the upcoming 2018 congressional elections.

The successful fight against this egregious gerrymander is worthy of celebration - and yet it is amazing how many of the harms we associate with gerrymandering remain in the court-ordered map. Consider the following conclusions from our initial assessment:

Congressional elections will remain overwhelmingly uncompetitive. The old gerrymandered map had only three swing districts, with 13 districts utterly safe. The new map also has only three swing districts, with 12 districts utterly safe. Without meaningfully competitive general elections, incumbents can sail to re-election without fear of any opposition. These legislators lack accountability once in office, except to the increasingly small and unrepresentative group of primary election voters. Many associate these issues with gerrymandering, but as the new Pennsylvania map shows, it is more accurately a problem with the single-winner district system itself.

In spite of everything, the new map still unfairly favors Republicans. Analysis of the new map strongly suggests that it was drawn with the goal of creating a more fair playing field for Democrats in Pennsylvania. As mentioned above, the state is nearly evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters, so some have made the possibility of a 9-9 outcome the litmus test for fairness. However, our projection methodology would only project a 9-9 result in a year favoring Democrats. In an even year, we would project Republicans to win between 10 and 12 seats, and in a year favoring Republicans they would be poised to win 13. Meanwhile, Democrats are stuck at a ceiling of nine seats - even in a Democratic wave year, we would not project Democrats to win more than nine seats. As 538 put it, “we would expect Democrats to win 7.5 of the state’s 18 U.S. House seats over the long term[.]”

FairVote has consistently argued that the only way to truly end the harms of gerrymandering is by replacing the single-winner district system itself with a fair representation voting method like ranked choice voting in multi-winner districts. In general, our analysis shows that multi-winner district maps with proportional results in each district outperform the very best single-winner district maps on just about every ordinary metric.

To test that hypothesis in the context of Pennsylvania, we grouped the 18 districts in the court-ordered plan into six contiguous sets of three. We then analyzed how these six areas would function if they each elected three representatives using ranked choice voting. Three-winner elections are the bare minimum for achieving proportional results, and we did not put our collective thumb on the scale in terms of tactically deciding which districts to combine; we simply grouped the districts that visually seemed to fit together the best. Here is the court ordered plan showing the grouping of its districts into larger, three-winner districts:


Analyzing this map largely confirms what we expected. In an even year, we would expect this map to elect nine Democrats and nine Republicans. In a Democratic-leaning year, Democrats would be expected to win 10 or 11 seats, and in a Republican-leaning year, Republicans would be expected to win between 10 and 12 seats. Half of the districts have a seat that would be competitive between the two major parties, and even in the other half the fact of multi-winner ranked choice voting would create opportunities for competition between members of the same party as well creating space for competition from independent and third party candidates.


This approach would also improve the electoral power of Pennsylvania’s African American and Hispanic populations. After some talk of a Voting Rights Act challenge to the new map, Nicholas Stephanopoulos pointed out that the new map performs similarly to the old one when it comes to the district demographics. Both have one majority-black district and one “arguable coalition district.” The three-winner map has black voters well above the threshold for one seat in District B, and very close to the threshold for a coalition seat with Hispanics, also in District B. However, in addition to meeting that standard, black and Hispanic voters are collectively more than half of the threshold for a seat in District C, and more than one-third of the threshold in Districts A and E, giving them substantial influence in the state overall, especially with all voters given the power to rank their choices.

This exercise demonstrates that even the most modest, ad hoc application of ranked choice voting in multi-winner districts outperforms a painstakingly optimized single-winner district map.

In fact, this thought experiment can be replicated from the atrociously gerrymandered plan too, to demonstrate that what particular district lines are drawn is far less important than the system itself. Here is the 2011 Pennsylvania gerrymander with its districts grouped in a visually convenient way to simulate a three-winner district plan:


Analyzing this map again confirms our expectation. In an even year, we would still expect this map to elect nine Democrats and nine Republicans. Only two of the six districts show two-party competition, though that is both still more than the level of competition in the court-ordered single-winner district plan (2 out of 6 instead of 5 out of 18) and as mentioned above, ranked choice voting in multi-winner districts inherently provides for a competitive electoral environment even outside of those districts. That the map was constructed out of an egregious gerrymander does not make much of a difference: with RCV in multi-winner districts, many more voters have the power to gain representation, and that makes the lines matter less.


The new Pennsylvania map was hard won, and it is a legitimate victory in the fight against the corrupt and indefensible practice of gerrymandering. Even if Pennsylvania were to adopt three-winner districts, some safeguards on the power to district would be warranted to protect against corruption. But the system itself would provide a significant safeguard, and when combined with a neutral districting process can provide a near-guarantee of fair outcomes and meaningful competition for all voters. That is worth fighting for.

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