CHESTER, Pa. — Beth Lawn’s neighborhood of modest duplexes has more in common with the rest of this struggling, crime-ridden city on the Delaware River next to Philadelphia than it does with the Amish farms of Lancaster County 50 miles away.
But the 71-year-old grandmother awoke one morning to find she had been moved from Pennsylvania’s 1st congressional district to the 7th, a labyrinthine monstrosity that winds its way through five counties and has been likened to a caricature of Goofy kicking Donald Duck.
“I’m pretty sure I’m in Goofy’s thumb,” Lawn says. “I have a vote, but it really doesn’t count for anything.”
Jerry DeWolf had a similar experience across the border in Maryland when his largely rural 6th congressional district, home to 40 miles of the Appalachian Trail, was stretched to include wealthy suburbs of Washington. He wasn’t moved out, but a new congressman was moved in.
Both Lawn and DeWolf were victims of partisan gerrymandering — purposeful line-drawing by state lawmakers to maximize their political party’s strength in Congress and state legislatures and weaken their opponents. In Lawn’s case, Pennsylvania Republicans drew the maps. In DeWolf’s, it was Maryland Democrats.
But they didn’t take the creative penmanship sitting down. Both are now plaintiffs in lawsuits challenging the lines, which gave Republicans 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional districts and Democrats seven out of eight in Maryland.
As the Supreme Court prepares to hear a landmark challenge to Wisconsin’s partisan gerrymandering in October, opponents of the process in other states aren’t just waiting for the justices’ verdict. They’re waging legal and constitutional battles of their own that also could reach the nation’s highest court.
“We’ve been subjugated into irrelevancy,” DeWolf says of the conservative residents of western Maryland, who elected an even more conservative member of Congress for 20 years until the lines were redrawn after the 2010 Census. “All of a sudden, the rules were changed.”
A three-judge panel refused in a 2-1 decision Thursday to enter a preliminary injunction declaring the Maryland district unconstitutional. The court also put further proceedings on hold pending the outcome of the Supreme Court case. Lawyers for the challengers said they would appeal the lower court decision to the high court.
Every 10 years in most states, the rules for drawing district lines for Congress and state legislatures are changed by the party or parties in power. If that power is shared — or, in a few states including California, if the process is governed by a commission — the lines might be drawn fairly. More often, one-party rule leads to partisan advantage.
The Supreme Court has ruled on multiple occasions that race cannot be a major factor in the way lines are drawn, but it has yet to set a standard for how much politics is too much.
“The Supreme Court hasn’t really even defined what gerrymandering is,” says Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
Two years ago, however, a narrow majority of justices ruled that states can try to remove partisan politics from the process by creating commissions to take the job away from legislators.
In those legislators’ hands, computer software programs have perfected the art of line-drawing for partisan advantage. Republicans, in particular, seized on the process in 2012 after gaining nearly 700 seats in state legislatures two years earlier, which gave them control of both houses in 25 states.
This year, along with the court battle over Wisconsin’s state legislative districts, prominent Republicans such as former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrats such as former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder are calling for reforms. Another former politician, Barack Obama, may lend his support to the cause.
Former president Barack Obama and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger are among those opposed to the way political districts are drawn. (Photo: Gerald Herbert, AP)
‘Bad for democracy’
Wisconsin is one of several battleground states in which Republicans and Democrats fought to a virtual draw in last year’s presidential election. But because Republicans control the legislature, they designed election districts in 2012 that have given them a nearly 2-to-1 advantage in the state Assembly ever since.
A federal district court ruled 2-1 last year that those districts discriminated against Democratic voters “by impeding their ability to translate their votes into legislative seats.” It demanded that the legislature draw new district lines by this November, but the Supreme Court blocked that requirement while it considers the state’s appeal. Oral argument in the case is set for Oct. 3.
Fueling challengers’ hopes is the existence of several data-driven models to measure election results against other factors. One of them — the “efficiency gap” — counts the number of “wasted” votes for winning candidates in districts packed with the opposition party’s voters, as well as for losing candidates in districts where opposition party voters were scattered.
Several other states could be affected by the outcome of the Wisconsin case:
Voting rights activists march through the streets of Winston-Salem, N.C. (Photo: Chuck Burton, AP)
• Lawsuits are on hold in North Carolina, where the Supreme Court already has struck down some congressional and state legislative districts because of their reliance on racial demographics. The state’s congressional delegation includes 10 Republicans and only three Democrats.
• Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2015 to reduce partisan gerrymandering of state legislative districts. Another one focusing on the state’s 12-4 GOP tilt in Congress could reach the ballot next year. The state’s Democratic Party chairman has threatened a lawsuit if the Supreme Court strikes down Wisconsin’s districts.
• Michigan activists are pursuing a ballot initiative to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission for both congressional and legislative districts. The former state Democratic chairman plans to sue over maps that have helped Republicans win nine of 14 congressional seats.
The Republican gerrymanders are the most flagrant because they were created in states, including Pennsylvania, that are competitive on a statewide level. Democratic lawmakers have tilted districts their way in states like Maryland where they control the process, including Illinois and Massachusetts. But they run both houses in just six states.
The results of the artistic partisanship are plain to see. In 2012, after the most recent Census, Republicans won 53% of the vote but 72% of the House seats in states where they drew the lines. Democrats won 56% of the vote but 71% of the seats where they controlled the process.
“No matter who is doing the gerrymandering, it’s bad for democracy,” says Mimi McKenzie, legal director for The Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia. “It’s bad when Democrats do it, it’s bad when Republicans do it.”
Packing and cracking
McKenzie’s 18 plaintiffs, along with the League of Women Voters, are suing the Republicans who did it in Pennsylvania. By drawing 13 congressional districts where Republicans win with an average of 59% and five where Democrats win with an average of 77%, the lawsuit claims, the GOP “packed” Democratic voters into some districts and “cracked” them among the others.
“They packed five areas and cracked the rest,” says Lawn, a chaplain in a retirement community. “I got cracked.”
The design of her 7th district is so creative that in King of Prussia, just west of Philadelphia, the only thing holding it together is Creed’s Seafood & Steaks. “The district is literally the width of the restaurant,” says David Gersch, another of the challengers’ attorneys.
Jim Creed stands in front of his restaurant, Creed’s Seafood & Steaks, which connects two parts of Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district. (Photo: Richard Wolf, USA TODAY)
Voters who object to the redesigned districts make two basic arguments: Their votes are either irrelevant or superfluous, which makes their status as constituents less important.
“They basically have discouraged anybody from voting,” says Carol Kuniholm, a Pennsylvania League of Women Voters vice president who heads up Fair Districts PA, a grassroots group that’s fighting gerrymandering. “If you have no idea who your representatives are, you just give up.”
Lawyers for the state’s General Assembly argue in court papers that opponents of the district lines can’t prove they are shut out of the political process or ignored by their members of Congress.
“Alleged disproportionate election results do not lead to a lack of political power or denial of fair representation,” their brief states.
But that’s the way it feels to Rebecca Womack. The west Philadelphia resident’s street was split down the middle between two state Senate districts, and hers was stretched north into suburban Montgomery County. Now if she wants to attend a community forum there, she has to travel an hour.
When she does travel to offer her objections to district lines, she brings along wooden pieces shaped like the state’s congressional districts.
“This puzzle is so visceral when you see it,” she says.
Raiding rural America
Heading into the 2010 elections, Maryland’s 6th congressional district had nearly 50,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. Two years later, after Democrats redrew the maps, the reverse was true, and the district’s shape was compared to a fire-breathing dragon.
The lawsuit filed by DeWolf and six other challengers claims they were punished by the legislature for voting Republican, a violation of their First Amendment rights. Their attorney, Michael Kimberly, calls it “a pretty clear example of, frankly, the disdain that people who are engaged in this practice have for average voters.
“This is basically West Virginia and rural Pennsylvania,” Kimberly says of western Maryland, “and they’ve connected it to Potomac.” In 2013, the Washington suburb was ranked as the wealthiest enclave in the nation with at least 25,000 people.
The Appalachian Trail cuts through Maryland’s 6th congressional district, which was redrawn to include wealthy suburbs of Washington, D.C., in order to make it competitive for Democrats. (Photo: Richard Wolf, USA TODAY)
“The only evidence produced proves merely that the map-drawers intended to create a more competitive district, one that slightly advantaged Democrats without considering any particular citizen’s political conduct,” its brief in federal district court says.
The federal court that temporarily refused to strike down the gerrymander Thursday nevertheless issued a strong denunciation of the practice, calling it “noxious and destructive” and “repugnant to representative democracy.”
That’s the way it feels to DeWolf, 36, a relatively recent transplant from upstate New York who has become a local county GOP chairman. While most of Maryland leans Democratic, he says, the western panhandle traditionally has been a conservative bastion of corn fields and apple orchards, hunting and fishing, and Friday night football.
Munching on a ham and cheese sandwich at Dan’s Tap House in Boonsboro one day recently, the electrical contractor pointed diagonally across the street to another eatery with a unique name: Crawford Restaurant Guns & Ammo.
“I don’t think you’d see something like that in Potomac,” he says.
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