Baer: Gerrymander lawsuit: not perfect but a start, and valuable

Pennsylvania Daily Life
Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol building along with roses in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, May 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

There’s some fun stuff in a sweeping anti-gerrymandering lawsuit filed in Commonwealth Court last week.

The suit seeks to get Pennsylvania’s 2011 congressional map scrapped as unconstitutional on grounds it was drawn by Republicans for Republicans to ensure that Republicans, now and forever, represent the state in Congress.

One example offered is the ridiculously shaped, oft-ridiculed Seventh District in the Philly burbs (GOP Rep. Pat Meehan’s seat).

The suit notes that there’s a place in Coatesville where the district is so narrow the only thing connecting one part of it to another is a medical endoscopy center.

I’m betting the example is there to suggest GOP mapmakers were thinking: “Hey, Dems, we got a new district for you. Bend over.”

It’s just one example in a list intended to prove Republicans packed Democratic voters into a few districts and dispersed such voters across other districts to guarantee GOP wins.

Not every example is perfect.

One asserts that prior to the map, south central Pennsylvania’s Fourth District was competitive, held by a Democrat for three successive terms, but that after the map took effect, it’s been won by a Republican since.

That seems compelling, unless you know something about the state’s districts.

The Fourth District was moved in 2011. It was lifted out of Western Pennsylvania, where it was held for three terms by Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire.

It was put into a heavily Republican area, where it’s been won since by GOP Rep. Scott Perry. And most of the area it was moved into made up the old 19th District – an area in Republican hands for the last 50 years.

But this overreach doesn’t diminish the issue. The lawsuit offers plenty of evidence to support its contention.

And, as I’ve written in the past, gerrymandering devalues many voters, creates noncompetitive elections, and feeds partisan gridlock. Pennsylvania ranks among the worst gerrymandered states.

Plus, the lawsuit is interesting in that it’s filed in a state court at a time similar suits from Wisconsin, Maryland, and North Carolina are moving forward in federal courts.

Also, though filed by the League of Women Voters and individual voters, one of the lawyers to argue the case, along with Philly’s Public Interest Law Center, is David Gersch, a big-time D.C. lawyer with experience in Pennsylvania voting issues. He was co-lead counsel in getting the state’s voter ID law declared unconstitutional in 2014.

And the suit dovetails with an aggressive campaign by the citizen group Fair Districts PA to replace the current system, in which lawmakers draw their own lines, with a system in which districts are determined by a citizens  commission.

Many Republicans – the GOP holds majorities in the state House and Senate and 13 of the state’s 18 congressional seats – see all this as sour grapes: Democrats can’t win elections so they whine to courts or try to change the rules.

Either effort is long ball. A court case can take years. A citizens commission requires amending the state constitution, which also takes years. If the current map stands, the next map gets drawn after the 2020 census.

But the lawsuit and the work of Fair Districts PA are valuable reminders to all voters that there are ways to loosen what’s too often a stranglehold on good government by the matching claws of self-serving, self-protective politics.

Those ways are AWOL in Pennsylvania. They include term limits, recall of public officials, early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, open primaries, and, yes, sensible redistricting reform.

And since I – and probably you by now – have next to zero faith that any good-government, pro-democracy action is forthcoming from our feckless legislature, the courts are likely the best source of hope.

Both parties, at one time or other, in this state and others, are guilty of stacking the deck against better democracy solely for partisan gains. Through this lawsuit or new legislation, it’s time for a better deal.