The new state Supreme Court could change Pennsylvania’s future, but how?

Not long after polls closed Tuesday, statewide Republicans were declaring a massive victory: They won a special election in western Pennsylvania that allows Republicans to take a 31-19 majority in the Pennsylvania state Senate. That means they’re two seats away from holding what amounts to a supermajority. The Senate Republicans would be nearly veto-proof.

Meanwhile, statewide Democrats were celebrating their own huge win: Three Democrats swept the race for three open seats on the state Supreme Court. It will fundamentally change how the court operates and could have huge repercussions on state politics in general.

So how are these two things related? Redistricting.

No, wake up. Keep reading. It’s a boring word and the thought of drawing out lines to figure out who represents each district throughout Pennsylvania feels about as exciting as watching paint dry. But think for a minute about what these lines mean, how politicians routinely game them and what they could change: Things like pot, guns, booze, gambling and education.

You may have noticed that Republicans currently hold majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, making it really difficult for people like Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, to get much done. Exhibit A: The budget battle that drags on into November when it was due July 1.

There are a few ways that Republicans would no longer have control of both chambers of the legislature. The first way is that Democrats just start performing better in traditionally Republican districts. But the more politically realistic way: Change the rules. Re-draw the lines of the districts so that they are less in favor of Republicans.

That’s where redistricting comes in. Every 10 years after census information comes in and is verified, it’s the state’s job to redraw the lines for the state House, the state Senate and Congress so that the lines are theoretically based on population and where people have moved.

But over the years, this process has turned into a political scheme called gerrymandering, in which the people drawing the lines game the system, and round people up based on voter registration for a few reasons: 1. To protect seats for their party and 2. To protect incumbents.

Last time around when redistricting took place in 2012, there was some major gerrymandering that went down — much in favor of Republicans and some Democrat incumbents statewide. PA has been called one of the most gerrymandered states in the union. It’s how we ended up with districts that look like this:

State Senate district

State Senate district

The process of redistricting is voted on by the legislature, but it’s run by a commission of five people: Two Democrats, two Republicans and the chair of the committee who serves as the tie-breaking vote. This person is usually selected by the state Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court leans blue — which it does now — that person will probably be a Democrat.

The state Supreme Court also has the ability to strike down redistricting plans based on complaints from citizens. This happened once in 2012 when the court ruled districts and counties were too broken up, and it was back to the drawing board.

There will be another census in 2020 and redistricting will come again in 2022 when the court will still be — barring a scandal or a resignation — majority Democrat. Democrats could re-draw the district lines in their favor and make an impact on the number of seats each party holds in the state House and state Senate. It would take a lot of re-jiggering to be enough for a full majority for the Dems, but it would at least help.

As far as we can tell, no one’s drawn up a “perfect map” for the Pennsylvania state House and state Senate districts that would be purely based on population and not politics. It’s been done for Pennsylvania’s Congressional districts, which are also re-drawn during the redistricting process, but the Supreme Court has less of an impact on how those turn out.

Still, they provide a good example of how things can change simply based on where lines are drawn. This is what Pennsylvania’s Congressional districts look like after they were drawn in 2012:

PA Congressional districts

PA Congressional districts

Here’s part of our region zoomed in:

Congressional districts

Congressional districts

How do these Congressional districts favor Republicans? An example: In the 2012 federal election, Republicans won 13 of 18 seats in Congress even though more Pennsylvanians voted for Democrats. State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Philadelphia, has repeatedly taken issue with this process and once used the same voter data to redraw the lines so that Democrats could have won 13 of 18 seats. His mapped looked like this:

Sen. Daylin Leach's preferred district lines.

Sen. Daylin Leach's preferred district lines.

Obviously that outcome isn’t entirely fair either. But it does illustrate how the drawing of lines has a huge impact on the party breakdown in Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation.

Astute Democrats are hoping that state legislators can take similarly gerrymandered state House and Senate districts and undo them so they don’t favor Republicans and incumbents. It could change the majority party of the legislature.

Eventually. Down the road. In 2022.

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