FOR WEEKS THIS winter, Pennsylvania flirted with a full-blown constitutional crisis.
In January, the Democrat-controlled state Supreme Court sided with activists from the League of Women Voters and ordered state legislators to redraw the state's congressional district map. GOP lawmakers, who had created the boundaries in 2011 during the once-per-decade reapportionment process, had engaged in a heavy dose of gerrymandering--the practice of drawing district lines intentionally to favor one party over another. Not surprisingly, Republicans objected to the court order, even threatening to impeach some of the state high court's justices. The two branches of government appeared to be deadlocked, with each determined to check what it saw as partisan opportunism on the part of the other.
Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly blinked first, offering a new set of district lines on February 9. It was promptly rejected by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat. A week later, the state Supreme Court produced its own map, drawn by Stanford Law School's Nathaniel Persily. Republicans howled that the court had unconstitutionally usurped a legislative power and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.
For now, uncertainty reigns.
Even when the crisis in Pennsylvania is eventually resolved, deeper issues regarding electoral district lines are likely to persist. Around the country, courts and independent redistricting commissions have been called upon. But so far, the big questions that haunt every such dispute--What makes a district gerrymandered? How doyou draw a truly neutral map?--have proven surprisingly difficult to answer.
At least, that is, by human beings.
Some researchers, armed with powerful new electoral data, have begun asking what might happen if human decisions were entirely removed from the equation. If regular citizens, state lawmakers, and Supreme Court justices can't figure out redistricting, perhaps an algorithm can.
ANATOMY OF A CRISIS
THE ROOTS OF Pennsylvania's crisis lie in the 2010 midterm election. After winning huge electoral victories, Republicans set about the regularly scheduled task of redrawing the commonwealth's congressional district lines. In a state with about 1 million more registered Democrats than registered Republicans, it's not easy to carve out districts that virtually ensure GOP victories. But they managed it.
In 2012, thanks to the new maps, Republicans won 13 out of 18 races--even though Democratic candidates received more total votes. The 13-5 split in the state's congressional delegation persisted in the 2014 and 2016 elections, and the GOP-drawn districts made a Democratic takeover in 2018 seem nearly impossible to imagine.
Then in January, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled that the districts were "plainly, clearly, and palpably" unconstitutional because counties were unfairly fractured to give Republicans an advantage. In a 5-2 decision, the Court ordered the old maps scrapped. It then instructed the state legislature to draw new ones in less than a month. If lawmakers failed to do so on time, the Court said, the justices would do it themselves.
Pennsylvania Republicans accused the state Supreme Court of judicial imprudence. Although Pennsylvania judges are technically nonpartisan, they noted that all five justices who voted against the GOP's map had been elected as Democrats. One of them, Justice David Wecht, was elected in 2015, and had called gerrymandering "an absolute abomination" during his campaign. Republicans called that an implicit promise to strike down the 2011-era maps.
Wecht's comments, the party-line ruling in the League of Women Voters case, and the state Supreme Court's declaration that it had the authority to redraw the map without legislative input--a pretty clear violation of the rules found in both the state and the federal constitutions--looked to GOP lawmakers like a political coup from the bench. A bill to impeach several of the justices was introduced in the General Assembly, and all hell broke loose.
Amid the grumbling and the threats against sitting judges, GOP lawmakers did indeed draw a new map and passed it through both chambers of the legislature. Although it removed some of the most egregious elements of the old map, several analysts condemned it for maintaining a Republican tilt. "A prettier map can still conceal ill-intent," said Sam Wang, a neuroscientist who runs the Princeton Election Consortium site.
After Wolf vetoed the new districts, Speaker of the House Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) and Senate President Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) wrote a joint letter accusing him of setting forth a "nonsensical approach to governance." Among other things, the governor had taken issue with the placement of Erie in a primarily rural district. But Erie is located in the state's sparsely populated northwest corner, near no other population centers. Where else, the GOP leaders asked, were they supposed to put it, given that "there are no voters in Lake Erie, and we are not allowed to go into Ohio, New York, or Toronto"? According to Turzai and Scarnati, the Democratic governor and Democrats on the state Supreme Court were conspiring to "divest the General Assembly of its constitutional authority to enact congressional districts."
If that was the justices' intent, they accomplished the mission on February 19 by releasing their own congressional district map and ordering the Department of State to use it for the upcoming midterm elections.
At first glance, the Supreme Court's districts appear less gerrymandered than either the 2011 map or the proposed Republican replacement. But a prettier map can still conceal ill-intent, and observers say Democrats stand to gain.
"This is the PA map Dems wanted," tweeted Dave Wasserman, the U.S. House editor for The Cook Political Report. "The PA Supreme Court's map doesn't just undo the GOP's gerrymander. It goes further, actively helping Dems compensate for their natural geographic...