State court to weigh gerrymandering lawsuit delay Wednesday
Lawyers for Pennsylvania legislative leaders and good-government groups will face off in state court Wednesday, Oct. 4, over the leaders’ attempt to delay a lawsuit alleging partisan gerrymandering until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the issue.
The Commonwealth Court will hear arguments at 10 a.m. on the lawsuit filed against a number of top state officials, including Gov. Tom Wolf, Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, House Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati.
The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania is joined by 18 individuals — each representing one of Pennsylvania’s U.S. congressional districts — in its suit that asks the Commonwealth 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.
Lawyers for the Pennsylvania General Assembly, Turzai and Scarnati filed an application Aug. 9 seeking a stay in the case until the U.S. Supreme Court delivers its ruling on Gill v. Whitford, a similar case involving claims of partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin.
But lawyers from the Public Interest Law Center, which is representing the League and 18 voters, have argued the lawsuit strictly involves free speech protections under the Pennsylvania Constitution and therefore must be heard by a Pennsylvania court.
“This is a Pennsylvania issue that affects Pennsylvania citizens, and we think the Pennsylvania courts are best situated to look at it and rule on it,” said Suzanne Almeida, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford on Tuesday, Oct. 3.
'Extreme' gerrymander: Turzai and Scarnati’s application to stay the lawsuit cites several similarities between the plaintiffs in Gill v. Whitford and the League of Women Voters’ suit. Both lawsuits were brought by Democrats alleging Republican misconduct in drawing congressional maps, and both use a new mathematical standard known as the efficiency gap model.
While Gill v. Whitford relies primarily on the use of the efficiency gap model, which measures the level of competitiveness in each election by calculating the number of “wasted votes” in each race, the League’s suit also uses computer modeling and the mean-median gap model, Almedia said.
The mean-median gap model measures the extent of “packing” and “cracking” of voters across districts with a simple statistical calculation.
The "mean" vote share can be calculated by adding up the percentage of the total votes in each district and dividing by the number of districts. The "median" vote share can be found by listing the districts from most-Republican to most-Democratic, or vice versa, and then selecting the middle district from that list.
The difference between the mean and median vote shares should be close to zero for unbiased, nonpartisan district maps.
“The efficiency gap is just one of several ways we’ve demonstrated an extreme partisan gerrymander in Pennsylvania,” Almeida said. “The (Supreme) Court’s ruling in Gill v. Whitford will not completely negate or support what happens in the Pennsylvania courts.”
Window closing: Redistricting reform has long been on the to-do list of many voting and election-reform groups, but since the 2016 general election, there has been an impressive swell of public support and attention on changing the way voters are divided into districts.
Fair Districts PA, a nonpartisan volunteer organization, has been amping up pressure on state lawmakers by holding hundreds of meetings across Pennsylvania to teach people how partisan gerrymandering allows lawmakers to be unresponsive to their constituents without any fear of losing their seats.
State Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon and York counties exemplified that unresponsiveness and incumbent comfort when he postponed hearings on redistricting reform, according to Fair Districts PA volunteer Bob Warner.
As chairman of the Senate’s State Government Committee, Folmer has “hit the pause button” on holding any hearings on redistricting reform until the League’s lawsuit against legislative leaders is resolved, Folmer Chief of Staff Fred Sembach said in September.
Citizens commission: The League of Women Voters, Fair Districts PA and other election reform advocates are backing Senate Bill 22, which would transfer district map-drawing responsibilities from lawmakers to an independent citizens commission through an amendment to the state constitution.
In order to enact the citizens commission, Senate Bill 22 or a similar bill must be passed by both legislative chambers in the 2017-18 session and again in the 2019-2020 session.
The potential amendment must then pass in a public referendum in 2020 to take effect before the district maps are redrawn in 2021 following the next U.S. Census.
If the League's lawsuit against state officials stretches into 2018, it is unlikely lawmakers will have enough time to introduce, debate and approve Senate Bill 22 by the end of the 2017-18 session.
If the independent-commission effort fails to pass this session, redistricting powers would likely remain vested in state lawmakers until at least 2031.
With widespread and very vocal support, the League of Women Voters is encouraging election-reform advocates to fill the courtroom on Wednesday, Oct. 4.
“It’s important we show up and show the court Pennsylvanians really do care about this,” Almeida said.