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Gerrymandering: 5 things voters in Western Pennsylvania should know

Wes Venteicher
| Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018, 10:11 p.m.
Republican leaders of the Pennsylvania Legislature — (from left) Pennsylvania state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, state House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, state Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and state Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny — say they've agreed to a proposed new map of congressional districts to replace one thrown out last month.
Chris Knight/AP
Republican leaders of the Pennsylvania Legislature — (from left) Pennsylvania state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, state House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, state Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and state Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny — say they've agreed to a proposed new map of congressional districts to replace one thrown out last month.

What is gerrymandering?

Gerrymandering refers to drawing voting district boundaries to favor one political party over another. The U.S. Constitution requires that states be divided into districts with equal populations to elect members of Congress and state legislatures. As populations change (as measured by the Census every 10 years), state legislatures redraw the maps. Gerrymandering is the practice by the party in power of drawing the districts to either spread out voters of the opposing party to minimize their influence or pack them into districts where they will win that district but not nearby districts.

The 12th Congressional District

Source: County election departments

 

Why is it important in Pennsylvania now?

The state Supreme Court ruled two weeks ago that Pennsylvania's 18 U.S. House districts are so gerrymandered they violate the state constitution by unfairly benefiting Republicans. Republicans hold 13 of the 18 House seats, which experts say is more than the party would hold if the maps were nonpartisan, according to The Associated Press.

The court, with a Democratic majority, ordered the Republican-controlled Legislature to draw new boundaries by last Friday that would need approval from Gov. Tom Wolf by Thursday. The maps would be in place for May 15 primary elections. The court released its full opinion last Wednesday .

The 18th Congressional District

Source: County election departments

 

How are Republicans and Democrats reacting?

State Republican leaders appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on Feb. 5 declined to take up the case. Senate Republican Leader Jake Corman and House Speaker Mike Turzai sought recusal of Democratic Justice David Wecht, saying critical statements he made about gerrymandering during a 2015 campaign show bias. Wecht denied the request, The Associated Press reported. Incumbents from six of the state's House districts — five of whom are Republican — said they wouldn't pursue re-election this year.

State Rep. Chris Dush, R-Jefferson County, proposed a bill last Monday to impeach the five justices, saying their order improperly overrides a section of state law regarding how laws are made.

Democrats, on the other hand, have praised the ruling.

Gov. Tom Wolf has said his team is "ready, willing and able" to work with the General Assembly to draw fair maps.

How does this all affect Southwestern Pa.?

Former Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, who had represented a large swath of Southwestern Pennsylvania during eight terms in the 18th District, resigned in October over reports that he asked a mistress to have an abortion. Murphy espoused anti-abortion beliefs as a congressman. A special election will be held March 13 to determine who will finish his term, which ends in January 2019. Primary and general elections for the next term are being held this year. Redistricting could make the district more winnable for a Democrat.

Rep. Keith Rothfus, who represents the oddly shaped 12th District stretching from Somerset to the state's western border, is up for re-election this year. Democratic challengers could stand a better chance of victory depending on the district's new shape.

What happens next?

The Republicans submitted a revised map late Friday, beating the midnight deadline.

Initial reaction was that it wasn't really intended to meet the approval of Gov. Tom Wolf, but to serve as a start to a negotiated map.

If the two sides can't come to an agreement by Thursday, the court said it would design a new map by next Monday.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676, wventeicher@tribweb.com or via Twitter @wesventeicher.

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