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Capital Redistrict: What will the gerrymander ruling mean for Harrisburg?

The congressional map that Pennsylvania’s supreme court recently struck down as unconstitutional. Click to enlarge.

If you’re a Democrat in Harrisburg with high hopes for Pennsylvania’s new congressional map, we may have some bad news for you.

A recent decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court may mean that Harrisburg could find itself in a single congressional district. However, the majority-Democrat city will probably remain under Republican representation in upcoming elections, said Chris Borick, political science professor and director of the Institute for Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College.

“Harrisburg is trickier than some places because it’s largely surrounded by quite conservative areas,” Borick said. “I think in many configurations with Harrisburg kept intact, you’d probably still find the residents in a Republican-leaning district.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the state’s congressional map “plainly, clearly and palpably” violated the state’s constitution. They ordered the state legislature to redraw the districts by Feb. 9, just three months ahead of the May 15 primaries.

The ruling was a historical rebuke of gerrymandering—the bipartisan political practice of redrawing congressional maps to disadvantage a minority party. In the United States, congressional maps need to be redrawn every 10 years based on census data. But since majority parties get to approve the final districts, they cherry pick the voters in each one to protect their party in future elections.

Gerrymandered districts make elections less competitive and often protect incumbent candidates and parties. They don’t, however, create elegant maps. Congressional borders in Pennsylvania zig, zag, and meander their way around favorable voting blocs, slicing through county and town lines as they go.

When state districts were redrawn by a Republican-controlled legislature in 2011, Harrisburg and Dauphin County fell victim to “cracking”—a gerrymandering technique that splits one locality between two congressional districts to diminish its voting power. Most of Harrisburg was incorporated into the state’s 4th congressional district, but South Harrisburg and Shipoke lie in the 11th. Dauphin County is split between the 4th, 11th and 15th, all of which are currently represented by Republicans.

According to the highest court in Pennsylvania, these distorted districts are now unlawful under the state constitution. The new districts must be compact, contiguous and roughly equal in population, according to the ruling. The court also said that new districts must respect existing jurisdictions, which means that cracked cities might be unified under a new map.

In fairly drawn districts, one major city or county can determine the outcome of an election. But Borick thinks that Harrisburg and Dauphin County are too small to flip a district in favor of Democrats.

It all comes down to numbers. With a population of 12.7 million people, Pennsylvania is entitled to 18 seats in congress. Congressional districts that are roughly even in population will comprise about 700,000 people each.

That means that Dauphin County’s 270,000 residents will constitute less than half of a congressional district. Even though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a small margin in Dauphin, Republicans make up a larger share of the vote in every single surrounding county – including Perry, Lebanon, Lancaster, York and Cumberland.

“If Dauphin County was the heart of the district, you’d still probably have a pretty competitive district that would lean Republican,” Borick said.

Indeed, redrawing a district like Pennsylvania’s 4th would at least lead to more interesting races. The last election in the 4th district saw incumbent Scott Perry face a young opponent with no political experience, who won an uncontested Democratic primary as a write-in candidate. Perry won easily. Reducing the partisan advantage of gerrymandered districts might encourage more qualified candidates to enter the fray.

“When you have a gerrymandered district, the desire for the minority party candidates to get in the race is often quite limited,” Borick said. “In many cases you don’t get the best-qualified candidate that would be most competitive, since they usually know the probabilities of winning are very slim.”

State Republicans have said they will seek a stay in the court’s ruling until after the May primaries. They also intend to file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme court. Borick said the ruling is probably safe because it was backed by Pennsylvania’s state constitution.

It’s possible, however, that the U.S. Supreme Court will strike down the timeline attached to the ruling, since a new map would affect congressional races that are already underway.

“I can see the most likely challenge being procedural,” Borick said. “In other words, the Supreme Court could say the timeline doesn’t give due process to the parties involved and doesn’t give them enough time to reasonably act to adjust their campaigns.”

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