This article is part of a year-long reporting project focusing on redistricting and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It is made possible thanks to the support of PA projector members and Votebeata project focused on election integrity and access to the vote.
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania — What Makes a Political Map Fair?
It’s a question that those tasked with drawing the boundaries of Congress and Pennsylvania legislation have grappled with over the past year — with major disagreements emerging in the process.
There are four traditional redistricting criteria set forth in the state constitution. Districts should be compact, contiguous, and composed of roughly equal population, with counties, townships, and wards kept together unless splits are “absolutely necessary.”
But beyond those basic measures, lawmakers and state Supreme Court justices have diverged on what other criteria they should consider and prioritize, with perhaps the most debate over what the this is called “partisan equity”.
The term has no standard definition, but it has been used in Pennsylvania to refer to a card that does not dilute a person’s voting power based on their political affiliation.
Democrats and good government groups have argued that it must be considered to satisfy the state constitution, while Republicans have said that the traditional four criteria — along with Pennsylvania’s political geography and the map drawing process – should be the deciding factors.
Ultimately, the state Supreme Court decided the issue. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf rejected a Congressional card sent to him by Republicans in the Legislature, sending the decision to the high court. These justices also had the final say on the constitutionality of the maps of the State House and Senate drawn by the Legislative Redistribution Commission.
During the process, the majority endorsed partisan fairness as a key redistricting concept.
“Indeed, we conclude that consideration of partisan fairness, when selecting one plan from among several that meet traditional baseline criteria, is necessary to ensure that a Congressional plan reflects and responds to the preferences supporters of Commonwealth voters,” said Chief Justice Max. Baer, a Democrat, wrote his opinion on the Congressional winning card.
Below, we break down the topic and lessons from this decade’s redistricting cycle.
What is partisan equity?
Partisan fairness measures whether a map reflects a state’s political orientation using a combination of measures. “Cracking” and “packing” – which describe when voting groups are separated and re-grouped to manipulate voter power – are two ways to dilute a voter’s political power, and when done intentionally on the basis of party affiliation is called partisan gerrymandering.
Take the Congressional map of Pennsylvania signed by former Republican Governor Tom Corbett in 2011.
Despite statewide victories for Democratic candidates — like former President Barack Obama, who won 52% of the vote in 2012 — Republicans have consistently won 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional seats.
The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and a group of voters argued that the map was designed to “wrap” Democrats into five districts and distribute them among the remaining 13.
The state Supreme Court rejected the map for this reason in 2018 and implemented a new one that created nine Democratic-leaning and nine Republican districts.
How is it measured?
Partisan fairness can be measured by a fusion of metrics that use data from past elections to predict outcomes based on proposed district lines.
Proportionality measures whether a map would produce a group of officials that reflects the partisan divide of the state. For example, if a party won 55% of the vote in a statewide election, it would proportionally get 55% of the seats.
Another measure assesses the difference between a party’s median vote share in each constituency and its average vote share. If a map is gerrymandered to group a political party into a few districts where they win with high numbers while their remaining members are spread across the districts, comparing the average vote share to the median vote share will show a big difference. Generally, there shouldn’t be a big difference between the average and median number of votes a party receives in each riding.
The efficiency gap measures the number of votes lost by each party. If a district is crowded or cracked, a large number of votes from a party will not contribute to its success, rendering the district ineffective. This number should be fairly similar for both parties. If one party has significantly more wasted votes than the other, this indicates gerrymandering.
Partisan bias examines the number of district seats a party would win if it won exactly 50% of the statewide election. In a perfectly proportional map, a party would get 50% of the seats. If a party won 60% of the seats, the proposed map would have a 10% bias in favor of that party.
These measures are playing an increasingly important role in decisions as state courts adjudicate gerrymandering disputes.
In 2018 and 2022, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania accepted testimony from academics who measured partisan fairness using some of these metrics, as did high courts in other states like North Carolina and Washington. ‘Ohio.
What is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s position on partisan fairness?
At the heart of the 2018 decision rejecting a previous Congressional map is the state constitution’s free and equal elections clause, which ensures that every vote has equal power.
“For our form of government to work as intended, every voter in Pennsylvania must have the same free and equal opportunity to choose their representatives,” Justice Debra Todd wrote on behalf of the majority.
In the same ruling, Todd, a Democrat, wrote, “It stands to reason that a diluted vote is not an equal vote, because not all voters have an equal opportunity to translate their votes into representation.
The exact term “partisan equity” does not appear anywhere in the ruling, but some petitioners in the recent Congressional map case argued that it must be considered to satisfy the election clause and prevent vote dilution.
“The Supreme Court has ordered that in addition to assessing a plan’s compliance with traditional criteria for redistricting, the Court must also assess whether a plan will nevertheless work to unfairly dilute the voting power of a particular group for a representative of Congress,” the attorney for the Gressman petitioners — a group of Pennsylvania math and science teachers — wrote in a filing. “The parties in this case refer to this principle as ‘partisan fairness’.”
This interpretation was substantially confirmed in Baer’s decision.
“Partisan fairness measures provide tools for an objective evaluation of precinct plans proposed by Congress to determine their political fairness and to avoid vote dilution based on political affiliation,” the judge wrote to the majority name.
What does the GOP say about partisan equity?
In legal documents regarding both congressional and legislative plans, state Republicans have argued that valuing partisan fairness amounts to gerrymandering and that Pennsylvania’s “natural political geography” favors Republican voters.
Because Democratic voters tend to live clustered in urban and suburban areas, district maps naturally have a Republican bias, they argued.
“Call it proportionality, call it responsiveness, call it partisan fairness,” said Matthew Haverstick, attorney for U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R., Pa.). “I believe these are all code words for another way of saying gerrymandering.”
House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Center) made similar arguments in his legal challenge to the state House and Senate maps. He voted against the plan as a member of the five-person Legislative Redistribution Commission.
He described the maps as a “democratic gerrymander” because they “sculpt[d] Commonwealth cities to spread Democratic-leaning urban voters into suburban and peri-urban areas to dilute the votes of Republican-leaning voters.
“The commission may not unnecessarily divide counties or municipalities to artificially increase the number of Democratic-leaning districts, even if the purported goal of doing so is to achieve a more ‘proportional’ or ‘symmetrical’ seat share by statewide bipartisan voting. share or negate a natural geographic disadvantage,” its attorneys argued in a brief to the state Supreme Court.
Mark Nordenberg, the nonpartisan chairman of the Legislative Redistribution Commission, defended the maps against accusations of partisan gerrymandering, saying they correctly reflected changes in state composition.
“More fundamentally, a fair map should be sensitive to voter preferences,” he wrote in a report to the state Supreme Court. “A party should not have such strong ingrained political power that it does not reflect the actual votes of the citizens of Pennsylvania.”
The state Supreme Court dismissed Benninghoff’s challenge, along with several others, but did not explain its reasoning.
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