HARRISBURG — The General Assembly won’t be able to pass legislation redrawing the state’s Congressional maps in time to meet a deadline set by the state Supreme Court, House Majority Leader Dave Reed acknowledged Thursday.
Exactly what that means isn’t clear.
Legislative leaders tentatively plan to submit a plan to the governor, as soon as today, with an aim toward having the Legislature approve it early next week, said Drew Crompton, chief of staff for Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati.
Reed said that would mean that lawmakers, while missing the deadline set by the court, would still be getting maps to the governor before the date the courts gave him to approve the new plan.
Crompton said lawmakers have no assurance that Gov. Tom Wolf will accept their plan for redrawing the maps if it comes after today's deadline.
"The ball is in our court," he said. "We have a responsibility to stake our ground."
J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Wolf, declined to say whether the governor would accept a redrawn map from the Legislature if it’s not done by today.
"In the event that the General Assembly does not pass a fair map by the court ordered deadline, Governor Wolf will evaluate his options,” Abbott said.
Reed has recused himself from the negotiations over how to redraw the congressional maps because he’s running for Congress. Reed, from Indiana County, lives in the district now represented by U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, a Republican from Bedford County, one of five incumbent members of Congress not seeking re-election.
Republicans have said their efforts to comply with the Jan. 22 Supreme Court order have been hampered by the lack of clarity provided by that order about what would make the new maps legal.
A full opinion released by the Supreme Court on Wednesday didn’t do much to move the ball forward as far as clarity is concerned, said Michael Dimino, a law professor at Widener Law Commonwealth.
“They didn’t answer a lot of the questions I thought they would,” he said.
That includes questions about how to balance the interests of creating compact districts against the interests of creating so-called minority-majority districts, intended to protect the voting interests of minority groups.
Crompton said that while there has been discussion about what makes districts fair, he thinks that consideration in redrawing the maps needs to be paid to what he described as "the confusion factor."
That means trying to limit how many people find themselves in a new district after the maps are redrawn, he said.
The level of potential confusion in a condensed process like the state is now moving through is going to be even greater than in a normal redistricting process that happens once a decade, he said.
The opinion released Wednesday fleshes out the justices’ rationale for leaning on standards used in designing state legislative districts as a fair way to design congressional districts. In the lawsuit, the League of Women Voters had argued that the maps packed Democrats into districts so that their influence statewide would be diluted.
The majority of the court found that these practices infringed on the rights of Democratic voters by making their votes less valuable than those of Republicans.
“A diluted vote is not an equal vote, as all voters do not have an equal opportunity to translate their votes into representation. This is the antithesis of a healthy representative democracy,” Justice Debra McCloskey Todd wrote in the opinion, which was joined by Justices Christine Donohue, David Wecht and Kevin Dougherty.
“What the court utterly fails to do,” Dimino said, “is say how much dilution is too much.”
In the opinion, Todd wrote that traditional measures of sound redistricting are useful in guaranteeing that voters don’t have their influence diluted. Those measures include things like ensuring that districts are compact and contiguous and don’t divide communities unnecessarily.
The opinion notes that the 2011 plan splits 28 of the state’s 67 counties between more than one congressional district. Montgomery County is split between five districts and Bucks and Westmoreland county are split four ways.
Before 1992, no redistricting plan divided municipalities. The 2011 plan split 68 of them.
The opinion breaks new ground, then, by asserting that considerations like avoiding situations where municipalities are divided between congressional districts are more important than other factors that have long been considered during the redistricting process.
Those political factors, like protecting incumbents, have long been part of the redistricting process, no matter which party is in control, Dimino said.
“It has always been accepted that there is going to be this type of gamesmanship,” he said.
Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, a Republican, wrote a dissenting opinion that said the majority opinion overstepped by giving “too much discretion to the judiciary to discern violations in the absence of proof of intentional discrimination.”
By being overprotective, such rules, he wrote “are, by their nature, vulnerable to claims of illegitimacy.”
In the opinion, Todd notes that in recent years, there’s been a vast disparity between the statewide voting in congressional races and the party breakdown of the state’s congressional delegation.
While Republicans have held a 13-5 advantage after each of the last three elections, their share of the total votes cast statewide in congressional races hasn’t been as dominating.
While holding 72 percent of the seats in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, the Republican candidates only received 49 percent of the cumulative votes cast in congressional races statewide in 2012. In 2014, Republican candidates got 55 percent of the vote statewide, and in 2016 they got 54 percent of the vote.
John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.