You may have heard that Pennsylvania has been going through some shit over the past few weeks. On January 22, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out the state’s congressional maps, siding with the League of Women Voters and saying the maps represented an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.
The court ordered the Pennsylvania legislature (controlled by Republicans) to redraw the district lines and gain approval from Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf within three weeks; if they didn’t, the court would redraw the maps itself. Pennsylvania Republicans defied court orders to turn over map data, and ended up submitting a new map that kept much of the partisan bias of the original maps in place. So the court took on the redistricting project itself, and drew a new map.
At least one redistricting expert has asserted that the new map goes beyond leveling the playing field, and gives Democrats an unfair advantage. Here’s the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman:
“Conscious pro-Dem mapping choices”? Let’s dig into this claim.
First: The fact that the new map increases Democrats’ chance of winning doesn’t mean they’re unfair; that’s the whole reason the court had to redraw the map in the first place. Analysts predict the new map will lead to Democrats winning nine seats in November, yet the new map actually retains a slight bias toward Republicans. The only thing that speaks to is just how out of whack the 2011 map was to begin with.
Wasserman’s argument here plays into the conventional wisdom that Democrats are naturally disadvantaged because their voters are clumped together in metropolitan areas, whereas Republican voters are more evenly dispersed throughout a given state.
Geographical distribution does pose a problem for Democrats, because our political systems have various built-in rural biases. In the U.S. Senate, a Wyoming Republican (pop. 585,000) and a California Democrat (pop. 39 million) wield the same voting power. But distribution isn’t the real problem in gerrymandered states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin or Maryland; unfairly drawn districts are.
Tom Wolf is an attorney who works on redistricting issues at the Brennan Center for Justice (and who bears no relation to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.) He says Pennsylvania’s old maps were “deeply unrepresentative of a diverse state.”
Wolf said those who oppose efforts to create fairer electoral maps will often bring up “the idea that Republicans are efficiently spread out across a state, whereas Democrats cluster together in cities” as a defense. But these arguments aren’t usually borne out by the evidence.
Against conventional wisdom, research has found that Democratic voters tend to be spread out fairly consistently across Congressional districts. In the Wisconsin gerrymandering case, Dr. Jowei Chen used a computer algorithm to simulate 1,000 possible district maps. He concluded that “extreme partisan intent”—not geographical destiny—“predominated over, and subordinated, traditional districting principles in the 2011 plan.”
Compare Chen’s simulated maps to the map Pennsylvania Republicans passed in 2011 (referred to here as Act 131):
“The geography is not dictating that outcome,” Wolf said. “It’s obviously not the geography because the bulk of the maps that are produced by the simulated mapping process are actually evenly split.”
Geographic density does pose some problems for Democrats, but not in this case. The way to correct the political imbalance isn’t forcing Millennials to move to the plains of Iowa, but moving states toward a nonpartisan system that takes partisan lawmakers out of the redistricting process.
Gerrymandering—in blue states or red states!—is a problem born of partisanship, not geography. Land can’t vote, no matter what Donald Trump and the rest of the Republican Party would like you to think.