Can Pennsylvania Draw the Line on Partisan Gerrymandering?

Two trials in Pennsylvania–one state, one federal–are challenging how state Republicans have drawn up the electoral map, and the outcomes have major national implications

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Story Transcript

AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Mate. A trial is underway in Pennsylvania that has major implications for the state and perhaps the rest of the country. A group of 18 voters are challenging how state Republicans have drawn up the electoral map. They accuse the Republicans of partisan gerrymandering, redrawing districts along lines that benefit GOP candidates and discriminate against Democratic voters. Since the Pennsylvania map was withdrawn in 2011, Republicans have sent 13 candidates to the House of Representatives, compared to just five for Democrats. If this case succeeds in redrawing the Pennsylvania map, that could help the fight against gerrymandering elsewhere and also improve Democrats’ chances of retaking the House.

Bob Stewart is a freelance journalist from Philadelphia who’s been closely following these issues. Welcome, Bob. Describe for us what is at stake here in this trial that began just this week in Pennsylvania.

BOB STEWART: We have two trials actually going on. One is in state court and one is in federal court. In the state court, basically a voter from each Congressional District filed suit, saying they were essentially disenfranchised. What they found is there’s evidence that the Republicans used data to specifically make the districts in favor of Republicans to win the Congressional District back in 2011. You’re not supposed to do that. They were trying to hide that they used that data. That judge in that case actually agreed they did not have to turn in that data.

But the other case, the federal one, the three panel judges did have that data made available and so that became part of the state case. Now they actually have evidence that the Republicans [inaudible 00:02:01] the districts in a way that favored the Republicans, which was pretty clear. Now that’s going through the process. What could happen is that the judge could order that the districts are redrawn for this coming election and not wait until 2021 to redraw them. That could have a very serious impact on the national atmosphere and race, as you could actually start to get into a situation where you’re tipping the balance to [inaudible 00:02:29].

AARON MATÉ: Let’s talk about what Republicans have done in terms of how they’ve drawn up these maps. I was reading that in one case, there’s one part of the map that goes to cover just one seafood restaurant before veering somewhere else, in a bid to basically keep out Democratic voters and minimize Democratic seats in the House.

BOB STEWART: Well, essentially what it comes down to is they packed the Democrats into massive districts, so there’s basically five guaranteed Democratic seats. Three are in Philly and two are about probably around Pittsburgh. Those particular Congresspeople are totally safe. Brendan Boyle is District 13, Bob Brady is District 1. They are reliably Democratic. They will typically run unopposed.

So what the Republicans did was they put all the Democratic voters in those five districts essentially, in the way of drawing the lines. So then counted for that, it make most of the Republican districts, the other 13, reliably Republican. There’s two or three swing districts in there that you could have go one way or the other, but they pretty much did a … If you really wanted to gerrymander, they did a pretty impressive job. You’ve basically stuck this way. I don’t think even with a turnaround in 2018, you’d have more than seven Democrats, which still gives a significant [inaudible 00:04:02] considered a swing state, it’s about 50/50 Republican/ Democrats, actually a little bit more Democrat. So it should be coming in with one Congress seat difference, it’s not. It’s nowhere near that.

AARON MATÉ: In your own case, you’ve been involved in a gerrymandering issue in your own district. Right?

BOB STEWART: Well, not in my district that I live in but there’s been a lot in Philadelphia in terms of the City Council seats and how those districts get drawn up. The state representative districts, everything. Now, my personal district, my state rep was … I was redistricted out of my state representative person in 2012. That really wasn’t too much of a big difference ’cause it was actually his brother who’s my new state representative. So that didn’t make a whole lot of difference.

But in certain areas in Philadelphia, the maps were … they were insane. I covered it in 2011. They literally just drew the maps to how they saw fit, how the incumbents would get reelected. One thing they do is they put all of the Hispanic population in Philadelphia into one district. Part of it is an interesting thing where they want a representative on City Council, and I can understand that. But now their population has grown in a way that they probably would be a very high, significant minority in three districts if you drew the districts properly and could possibly have three representatives on counsel. But they’re gonna only have one, and they’re such a minority in the other districts that they fall in now that they would never possibly … they would never win on those lines. It’s interesting how they do it. But yeah, it’s certainly not a partisan thing in terms of it’s not just Republicans. The Democrats do it ’cause Philadelphia is gerrymandered itself and is a Democratically controlled city.

AARON MATÉ: All right. One expert who’s already testified in the gerrymandering trial said that random computer models, according to him, were able to draw up more neutral maps than that which the Republicans have drawn up. What do expect to happen with this trial? Talk a bit about how it could affect the national makeup of the House and that if it can be so radically withdrawn, that could help Democrats elect enough members to retake the House.

BOB STEWART: Okay. Well, what do I think would happen with the court case? Well, first off, I think the expert’s probably spot-on right. It would definitely be more fair. It’s almost hard to not be … It’s almost hard to randomly come up with one that would end up this way. But what I would say that I don’t think the state court case is gonna go in the favor of the Democrats. I do a lot of court reporting on low-level crimes, on high-level stuff, and everything else. I can usually tell by a judge’s tone where a case is gonna go a lot of the time. In this case, I think the judge is … The way he’s admonishing the plaintiffs’ attorneys, the way he’s resisting on certain evidence coming through, I have a feeling that case is not gonna go their way.

The federal case is different, and I’m not totally aware on how that would go and how that would break down with that panel. That’s not brought up by the voters, that’s actually brought up by an organization. The League of Women Voters brought that case. That could go a different way, but the state case I don’t think will go in the favor … I don’t think the districts will change on that level. The federal case could change that.

But if it did, I mean, you could literally have possibly four, maybe even five more Democratic Congresspeople coming from Pennsylvania. That’s not in and of itself enough to tip the House, but with the Trump situation nationwide and a lot of moderate people are turned off by him two years into his presidency, where the feeling’s gonna be … You get two or three more from each state, all of a sudden, you have a situation that could tip the balance of the House. That would be interesting to see, if that would develop that way.

AARON MATÉ: Right, and especially if gerrymandering is stuck down elsewhere. There’s a big case in Wisconsin that also could change the map across the country and perhaps hurt the Republicans’ chances in that regard. Bob Stewart, freelance journalist from Philadelphia, thank you.

BOB STEWART: Thank you.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.