On Monday, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued a new map for the state’s congressional districts. The map, which is poised to have a potentially-decisive role in the 2018 midterms, is the culmination of months of political and legal drama.
Since the Court issued its judgment a few weeks ago, the Senate President Pro Tem has refused to comply with a court order, a state senator has proposed impeaching the justices who voted in the majority, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to get involved, and the state legislature has proposed a new, similarly-gerrymandered map, which the governor promptly vetoed. The saga still isn’t over, as the the state GOP has announced it will bring another challenge in federal court.
This turmoil obscures the historic ruling at the center of the debate. In January, the Court struck down the state’s current congressional map, declaring that it “plainly and palpably violates the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” Since its enactment in 2011, Pennsylvania’s map has been a model of extreme partisan gerrymandering. From its infamous “Goofy kicking Donald Duck” district to the consistent 13-5 split between Republicans and Democrats in the state’s House delegation (even in years when the Democrats won the majority of statewide votes), every aspect of the Pennsylvania congressional map reflects an attempt by the state’s Republican lawmakers to entrench their own power with mathematical precision.
The ruling relies on a provision in Pennsylvania’s constitution that provides: “[e]lections shall be free and equal,” reasoning “[a]n election corrupted by extensive, sophisticated gerrymandering and partisan dilution of votes is not ‘free and equal.’” This promise of “free and equal elections” isn’t limited to Pennsylvania’s constitution. FairVote and the Campaign Legal Center’s new Laboratories of Democracy report explores the constitutions of all 50 states and identifies provisions protecting voting rights and fair elections. Twenty-four other state constitutions contain some version of a “free and equal elections” clause, potentially offering dozens of opportunities for state court challenges like the one in Pennsylvania.
State constitutions typically have stronger provisions for voting and elections than the U.S. Constitution and Pennsylvania has shown the viability of using such provisions to protect the fairness and integrity of elections. Now, with the Laboratories of Democracy report, democracy advocates have a roadmap to challenge partisan gerrymandering in state courts, no matter what the U.S. Supreme Court decides.
This new map demonstrates another advantage of using state courts to challenge gerrymanders. The U.S. Supreme Court frequently blocks attempts to order gerrymandered maps redrawn ahead of imminent elections, leaving voters stuck in districts where their votes are unlawfully diluted for at least another election cycle. State courts may be more inclined follow Pennsylvania’s lead and order more immediate remedies.
The Laboratories of Democracy report offers the blueprint for a state-based approach to protect and strengthen democracy and the fundamental right to vote. As long as meaningful reform remains stalled in Washington, the states offer the best opportunity for change. But as Pennsylvania shows: while state-focused reform is possible, it won’t be easy.