The congressional redistricting process in Pennsylvania appears to be at an impasse. A map drawn by the Pennsylvania House Government Committee, controlled by Republicans, has drawn sharp rebuke from Democratic Governor Tom Wolf. In two consolidated cases, Carter v. Degraffenreid and Gressman v. Degraffenreid, voters are asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to step in and adopt a congressional redistricting plan in time for the 2022 primary election, should the General Assembly and the Governor fail to reach agreement.
On December 31st, a group of Pennsylvania voters who have demonstrated a longstanding commitment to free and equal elections have filed an application to intervene in the cases. These voters include the Executive Director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, active members from the League of Women Voters Pennsylvania, and advocates from Fair Districts PA. They seek to ensure that the new congressional map protects the interests that they and all other Pennsylvanians have under the Pennsylvania Constitution in selecting members of Congress within fair districts. The voters are represented by the Public Interest Law Center and pro bono counsel from Dechert LLP.
“Every Pennsylvanian deserves to have a fair and transparent redistricting process that results in maps where their communities can be fully represented,” said Khalif Ali, one of the voters filing an application to intervene. “For too long, our congressional maps have been drawn for the benefit of partisan politicians, not the communities they represent. As Executive Director of Common Cause, a community organizer, and a resident of a historically Black community in Pittsburgh, I believe intervening in this litigation allows everyday Pennsylvanians to be able to advocate for the redistricting process they deserve.”
In seeking to join the case, the interveners will assert that the process for adopting the map should be transparent and allow for public input and comment before the map is finalized. Moreover, the new congressional map should not seek an unfair partisan advantage, or an unfair advantage for current incumbent representatives, but should be drawn according to neutral and non-partisan standards, including compactness, contiguity, keeping political subdivisions together, and maintenance of population equality among congressional districts. In addition, the interveners seek to ensure that the new congressional map respects communities of interest.
The interveners are also seeking to have prisoners counted in their homes, rather than their cells, when congressional district lines are drawn. The practice of counting prisoners as residents of their cells, commonly known as “prison gerrymandering,” disadvantages communities that are home to a disproportionate share of prisoners – Black, Latino and urban communities that have been impacted by mass incarceration – while giving an unfair population boost to areas where prisons are located, which are typically rural and white. Earlier this year, Pennsylvania’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission enacted reforms that significantly curtailed prison gerrymandering in the drawing of state legislative districts.
“A fair congressional map is foundational for the free and equal elections guaranteed by Pennsylvania’s constitution,” said Ben Geffen, staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center. “Our Commonwealth must ensure that its new congressional map allows voters to pick politicians, not the other way around. Political parties and incumbent politicians should not use the once-a-decade reapportionment process to gain an advantage over their opponents.”
The Law Center’s voting rights work is supported by the Jeffrey Golan & Frances Vilella-Vélez Voting Justice Project.
In 2018, the Law Center represented 18 Pennsylvania voters and the League of Women Voters PA in League of Women Voters v. Commonwealth, a case that successfully challenged Pennsylvania’s 2011 congressional district map as a violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The 2011 map had been one of the most egregious partisan gerrymanders in the country, ensuring that Republican candidates consistently won 13 out of 18 seats, even in elections in which a majority of voters statewide cast ballots for Democratic candidates.
In League of Women Voters, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the 2011 map violated the Pennsylvania Constitution’s guarantee of “free and equal” elections and established a new, fair map for the 2018 and 2020 elections after the General Assembly and the Governor failed to reach agreement on a new redistricting plan.