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Gerrymandering Q&A with Lindsay Lazarski of WHYY and Keystone Crossroads

Lindsay has been covering the cases related to Pennsylvania's congressional map and helps make sense of what's happening and what it means for voters in the Keystone state.
Gerrymandering Q&A with Lindsay Lazarski of WHYY and Keystone Crossroads

Lindsay Lazarski of WHYY and Keystone Crossroads

 By Jenna Spinelle

As we’ve previously written, there are no easy answers to the legal questions surrounding partisan gerrymandering.

In Pennsylvania, one case was decided in federal court last week, and another is being heard now by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Another panel of federal judges reached a different decision the North Carolina case last week, and the case involving Wisconsin's map is being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

These are complex issues and the outcome of one case could affect the others. To help make sense of it all, I spoke with Lindsay Lazarski, a reporter at WHYY in Philadelphia who is covering Pennsylvania’s situation for Keystone Crossroads:

Pennsylvania's congressional district map is often cited as one of the most egregious examples of partisan gerrymandering. What's so bad about it and how did it get that way?

Looking at the big picture, Pennsylvania is a battleground state and very competitive in statewide races. Democrats hold an advantage in voter registrations, but Republicans currently hold 13 out of 18 congressional seats and seem to have a huge advantage in many of these districts. 

Democrats are concentrated in urban areas, and in the federal case decided last week, a GIS expert testified that Democrats were packed into as few districts as possible and split in places like Harrisburg, Bethlehem, Erie County, and the Philadelphia suburbs, which created Republican majorities in those districts.

How are the state and federal cases in Pennsylvania related?

They are similar challenges in that both involve groups of voters who say Republicans intentionally gerrymandered. In the federal case, the plaintiffs say that lawmakers violated Election Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Last week, a three-judge panel upheld the decision of a lower court  2-1 that the map does not violate the Elections Clause. The plaintiffs have said they plan to appeal to U.S. Supreme Court. 

The other case challenges the Pennsylvania constitution is being decided by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which is made up of seven justices — five Democrats and two Republicans. The court will hear testimony from each side’s attorneys and it’s likely we’ll have a decision by mid-February. The exciting thing about this case is whether the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will go against the lower court’s recommendation.

How does what’s happening in Pennsylvania compare to North Carolina and Wisconsin?

In North Carolina, a panel of three judges went in the opposite direction of Pennsylvania in ruling that the North Carolina map did violate the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiffs' attorneys cited the North Carolina decision to say they would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court heard similar arguments in the Gill v. Whitford case in Wisconsin.

Republicans in Pennsylvania have argued that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court should wait to see what the U.S. Supreme Court says before making their decision, so there are a lot of balls up in the air right now. We’re talking about separate documents, the Pennsylvania Constitution and the U.S. Constitution, but what the U.S. Supreme Court says will influence other cases. How much influence they'll have and what that will mean is still uncertain.

If the Pennsylvania Supreme Court finds that the map was unfairly drawn, what’s the process for redrawing it?

The plaintiffs have asked the court to order lawmakers and governor’s office to use traditional methods of redistricting like keeping communities of interest together in insisting that everything should be reviewed by the court within two weeks. If they can’t meet that two-week deadline, the plaintiffs want the court to nominate someone to head the creation of a new map. 

That’s what the plaintiffs are asking for — we’ll see if they get it. In the end, the redistricting process in the hands of the state legislature and needs to be approved as a measure of law and signed by Governor Wolf. Can the court take that out of the legislature’s hands? We’ll see. It seems like a strong ask by the plaintiff. 

Anything else we should know about these cases?

The judges in the Pennsylvania federal case said this isn’t a matter for the courts to decide, and if you want to see a change in the government system, it's up to voters to elect new representatives through the legislative process. They’re not giving up on democracy, but they’re putting a lot of onus on the people to vote for the change they want to see occur.