Gov. Wolf rejects Pennsylvania Republicans' map proposal, saying it remains a partisan gerrymander

HARRISBURG — Gov. Wolf on Tuesday rejected a congressional map proposed by Republicans, setting off yet another round of dispute about how to redraw districts that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional.

Wolf, a Democrat, said the maps proposed last week by the top Republican leaders in the House and Senate were once again a partisan gerrymander designed to favor the GOP. Top Republicans accused the governor of trying to apply standards to the map that were outside of the court’s order and opinion and challenged him to produce his own map.

“Quit being coy,” Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) and House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) told Wolf in a joint letter.

The governor and the Republican-controlled legislature did not appear any closer Tuesday to reaching an agreement on a new congressional map, which the court hopes to have in place for the May 15 primary. If they don’t reach some sort of agreement by Thursday, and absent any requests for an extension, the state Supreme Court has said it intends to put a new map in place by Monday, relying on submissions from parties in the lawsuit that prompted the redrawing and help from an outside expert.

Tuesday’s installment of the political drama began unfolding around 11:30 a.m., when Wolf announced he was rejecting Scarnati’s and Turzai’s map. Within a few hours, Scarnati and Turzai shot back with a letter in response.

The governor told the pair he felt their map “squeezes densely populated areas into the small districts while having no respect for municipal lines.” Republicans replied that they felt that was inevitable given that congressional districts are based on population.

Wolf said cities like Reading and Erie “are irrationally connected to rural areas to dilute their interests.” Scarnati and Turzai responded: “Where are you going to connect Erie city but to rural areas? There are no voters living in Lake Erie, and we are not able to go into Ohio, New York or Toronto with this exercise.”

Proposed Changes to the
Seventh Congressional District

The 7th Congressional District in Pennsylvania, currently held by Republican Pat Meehan, has been heavily criticized for its bizarre shape. A proposed new boundary drawn by Republican leaders is much more compact. Democrats say the map is still unconstitutionally skewed in favor of the GOP.

SOURCE: Offices of Sen. Joe Scarnati and Rep. Mike Turzai
Staff Graphic

Wolf complained that some key areas are divided, pointing to the fact that Montgomery County would be split four times, and said the Wilkes-Barre area appears to be “divided without explanation” into two districts. Republicans countered that their map breaks apart fewer counties and municipalities than a map recently endorsed by Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, a Democrat.

The governor took issue with Republicans’ argument that their map minimizes the “confusion factor” by leaving 70 percent of voters in the same congressional district. Wolf said he finds that claim “dubious at best.”

“This serves no legal purpose, was not a requirement of the court and voters will have months and many means to obtain information on candidates and the districts before voting,” the governor wrote.

Republicans replied that U.S. Supreme Court opinions in 1983 and 2012 say that “valid, neutral redistricting policies include preserving the cores of current districts and avoiding contests between incumbent representatives.”

Wolf said he remains open to working with the legislature and hopes the General Assembly, as a body — not just two leaders — can submit a map for his consideration.

He bolstered his announcement with an analysis from a math professor who said the Republican proposal was heavily skewed to favor the GOP. Wolf’s office released a summary Tuesday of the work done by Moon Duchin, the Tufts University professor he enlisted to help evaluate the fairness of maps presented to him.

Duchin’s analysis compared the Republican map with millions of computer-drawn ones that did not take partisanship into account. All the comparable generated maps were less favorable to Republicans than the lawmakers’ proposal, she found, indicating that the skewing of the Republican map unlikely was due to chance.

There is only a 0.1 percent chance that a plan drawn according to the court’s order would have been as favorable to Republicans as the proposed map, she wrote in her summary, calling it “extremely, and unnecessarily, partisan.”

And while Republicans have argued that Pennsylvania has a natural geographic bias toward Republicans because Democrats cluster tightly in urban areas, Duchin’s analysis found that the Republican map goes beyond that bias. In her analysis, she found that the only generated map more skewed than the GOP’s proposal is the current congressional map.

Her findings are consistent with those of other academics whose work focuses on gerrymandering.

Wolf’s announcement was applauded by Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, who said they already are working on plans to present in case it is left to the court to select a map.

The rebuke from Republicans was swift. Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman accused the governor of running down the clock to increase the chances that the state Supreme Court, which has a Democratic majority, would end up choosing a map.

“Clearly, he doesn’t want a legislative process. He wants to shut the representatives of the people of Pennsylvania out of this process, and he wants seven [people] in robe, really four people in robe, to draw a map,” Corman said.

“There is not any standard in what the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said or anywhere in federal government, in any court ever, that says competitiveness is a standard,” he said. “I can’t help where people live.”

Republicans, Corman said, are considering petitioning federal court if the state Supreme Court selects a map, arguing that is the legislature’s job, not the court’s.

“If they move forward, you’re really spinning Pennsylvania into a constitutional crisis,” he said.

Corman, Turzai, and some Republican staffers met briefly with Wolf on Tuesday afternoon. But they did not appear to make any progress on a map, and Republicans left without any more clarity about what to tweak, according to several people familiar with the meeting.

J.J. Abbott, spokesman for Wolf, said the administration believes the governor’s letter provided enough clarity for Republican lawmakers to begin revising the map.

Republican leaders have said they’re reluctant to do that without first seeing a map from the governor.

“We are happy to put this through a legislative process,” Corman said. “…We’re not going to do it with this gun to our head.”