Voters file gerrymandering lawsuit against state leaders

Jason Addy
York Dispatch
  • Voters have brought a lawsuit against state leaders claiming the state's congressional maps are gerrymandered.
  • The League of Women Voters and a voter from each of the state's 18 U.S. House districts brought the suit.
  • The lawsuit's fate could be decided by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a similar case.

Good-government groups and more than a dozen Pennsylvania voters are suing the state over a congressional district map they say is one of the most extreme gerrymanders in the country.

According to the lawsuit filed Thursday in the state Commonwealth Court, 18 individuals and the League of Women Voters are asking the court to strike down the state’s current congressional map, drawn and approved in 2011, and order new maps to be created before the next election.

Each of the 18 voters represents one of the state’s 18 congressional districts. 

John Capowski, emeritus professor of law at Widener University, is suing on behalf of Pennsylvania’s 4th Congressional District, served by Rep. Scott Perry, R-Dillsburg.

Susan Carty, president of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, speaks at a news conference at the state Capitol in Harrisburg to announce a lawsuit challenging the state's U.S. congressional district boundaries. Behind Carty are the 18 individuals who joined the League of Women Voters in suing the state, including John Capowski, of Camp Hill. Capowski, center, is representing the 4th Congressional District in the lawsuit. Thursday, June 15, 2017. Jason Addy photo.

Speaking at the Capitol on Thursday afternoon, Capowski, of Camp Hill, said he added his name to the suit because he is "outraged" by the lack of competition in races for the U.S. House.

"I asked to join this action because I find myself outraged by the redistricting and the lack of meaning that has been created by it for my votes and the votes of other Pennsylvanians," Capowski said. 

Before the maps were redrawn, Capowski said, the congressional races in his area were almost always competitive, but "Democrats haven't come close" to winning the 4th District since the redraw in 2011.

Republican Todd Platts served York County for more than a decade as the U.S. representative for the 19th Congressional District. Pennsylvania lost a seat in Congress following reapportionment after the 2010 Census, and the 19th district was eliminated. 

In 2012, Perry won election from a four-candidate field with 59 percent of the vote, beating his closest opponent by 25 percent of the vote. 

Perry defeated Linda Delilah Thompson with nearly 75 percent of the vote in 2014, and he retained his seat in 2016 after picking up 66 percent of the vote against Joshua Burkholder. 

More:State reps throw support behind redistricting reform

More:EDITORIAL: Fight gerrymandering in court if necessary

The lawsuit was filed against numerous top state officials, including Gov. Tom Wolf, Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, House Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati.

Although most of those officials were not involved in the drawing of the district boundaries, they would be responsible for creating and implementing new maps if the courts rule the current ones are unconstitutional.

Efficiency gap: For the past three decades, numerous lawsuits challenging partisan gerrymanders have been rejected by courts unwilling to accept the suits’ proposed standards for measuring the extent of district-map manipulation.

But a November 2016 federal court ruling in a lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s congressional maps may have opened the door for a slew of suits in other states. 

Breakthrough Visuals graphic artist Terry LaBan's rendering of the discussion at a Fair Districts PA event in Montgomery County in February. (Courtesy:


The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled 2-1 in favor of a constitutional challenge to Wisconsin's district maps that relied, in part, on a new mathematical standard to measure the extent of gerrymandering, called the "efficiency gap model."

The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to hear the case in its next term after Republican Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel appealed the federal district court's ruling in February.

More:U.S. court ruling could spur Pa. gerrymandering challenge

The legal challenge to the boundaries of Pennsylvania’s 18 U.S. House districts will use the same model, which measures the level of competitiveness of districts by calculating the number of “wasted votes” in each race.

Wasted votes are votes that do not contribute to a successful candidate’s victory, said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and creator of the efficiency gap model. 

Ben Geffen said Republicans in Pennsylvania have held on to their "manufactured majority" over the last three elections by drawing the maps in their favor.

Geffen is an attorney for the Public Interest Law Center, which is representing the 18 voters in the suit, along with the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer.

David Gersch, an attorney for APKS, said the lawsuit is based on the "issue of principle, not party." The congressional maps, and therefore the congressmen, are "unresponsive to the will of the people." 

Under Pennsylvania's current district maps, Democratic voters are "packed" into five districts where they win in landslides and "cracked" across the other 13 districts where they have no chance of winning a majority of the votes, Gersch said.

Geffen noted that the lawsuit brought Thursday is one of a number of nonpartisan lawsuits filed against states in the past few years.

Democrats in Maryland are being sued for partisan gerrymandering, while Republicans in Wisconsin and North Carolina are facing similar suits. 

More:Hundreds gather in Harrisburg for gerrymandering talk

These practices by the majority party create “safe districts” by ensuring its opponents win their districts by large margins while the majority wins its own districts by slim margins to maximize the opposition party’s wasted votes, McGhee has said.

The congressional maps in question were first used in the 2012 general election. In 2012, Republicans held 12 congressional seats and Democrats held seven. 

More:Redistricting reform: Can public fervor create political will?

Following the 2010 Census, Pennsylvania lost one seat in Congress. In November 2012, Republicans took control of 13 seats and Democrats won five, despite Republicans picking up less than 49 percent of the popular vote. 

Republicans successfully defended those 13 seats in 2014 with 55 percent of the vote and in 2016 with 54 percent of the vote.

The lawsuit filed Thursday could hinge on whether the U.S. Supreme Court accepts the efficiency gap model in the Wisconsin gerrymandering lawsuit. 

Technological manipulation: The lawsuit filed Thursday refers to Pennsylvania’s congressional map as “a crazy quilt” and points to districts that resemble the shapes of Florida and Italy.

The suit also highlights the state’s 7th District, which is notorious in redistricting reform circles for its “Goofy kicking Donald Duck” shape.

More:EDITORIAL: Commit now to independent redistricting

The lawsuit alleges that Republican legislators who drew the maps in 2011 “dismantled Pennsylvania’s existing congressional districts and stitched them back together with the goal of maximizing the political advantage of Republican voters and minimizing the representational rights of Democratic voters.”

Under the current system, U.S. congressional boundaries are drawn by state legislators. After legislators craft a plan, the bill goes through the normal legislative process, requiring both chambers to approve it and the governor to sign off before the map is implemented.

The lawsuit claims the 2011 plan created by Republican lawmakers “was the product of a national movement by the Republican Party to entrench its own representatives in power” by using cutting-edge mapping and data-mining technologies “to manipulate district boundaries with surgical precision.”

In 2010, the national Republican State Leadership Committee’s Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) raised tens of millions of dollars to help put Republicans in control of state legislatures before district maps were redrawn after the Census. REDMAP has plans to raise more than $100 million for its 2020 push.

Multiple Democratic redistricting efforts, including former President Barack Obama’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee, have been established since 2010, putting Pennsylvania in the crosshairs for a multimillion-dollar battle for the state Legislature in the coming years.