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'This is a gerrymandered map,' West Chester professor says in redistricting trial

Pennsylvania's congressional map is a partisan gerrymander that divides an unprecedented number of "communities of interest," a West Chester University political science professor said.

Congressional districts in Southeastern Pennsylvania were among the ones that West Chester University political science professor John Kennedy described as dividing “communities of interest.”
Congressional districts in Southeastern Pennsylvania were among the ones that West Chester University political science professor John Kennedy described as dividing “communities of interest.”Read moreStaff Graphic

HARRISBURG — A West Chester University political science professor testified Tuesday in a state gerrymandering trial that Pennsylvania's congressional map splits "communities of interest" such as municipalities, counties, and other areas to an extent unseen in previous maps.

"The 2011 map carves up Pennsylvania's communities of interest at an unprecedented level and contains more anomalies than ever before," said John J. Kennedy, who has been at West Chester University for two decades. The effect of the map, he said, is to disadvantage Democratic voters and favor Republicans.

"This is a gerrymandered map," he said.

His testimony came Tuesday afternoon in the second day of a trial that will ultimately be decided by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The suit is brought by a group of Democratic voters who are challenging the map as a gerrymander to maximize the number of Republicans winning seats in the House of Representatives and thus discriminates against Democrats.

Under the map, Republicans have consistently won 13 of the 18 House seats, even as votes in the state have been roughly evenly split, with Pennsylvania electing both President Trump and former President Barack Obama; Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey; Gov. Wolf and former Gov. Tom Corbett.

During cross-examination, a lawyer for House Speaker Mike Turzai, Robert Tucker, questioned whether other reasons could explain the map: the clustering of Democrats in urban areas, the need to keep populations equal across districts, the protection of incumbents.

Kennedy said that he disagreed with some of those criteria, such as protection of incumbents, and that others would not necessarily lead to the current congressional map.

His analysis focused on "communities of interest," which are often considered in the redistricting process. Pennsylvanians, he said, are particularly inclined to identify themselves by neighborhoods, towns, and regions rather than the state as a whole.

"Communities are important to our identities as Pennsylvanians. Residents of [Delaware County] have a different identity from residents of Amish Country," he said.

For example, he took issue with Pennsylvania's 15th Congressional District, which stretches from Hershey to Allentown but separates Allentown from areas around it. That represents a dilution of Allentown's Democratic votes, he said.

"The minor league baseball team is the Lehigh Valley IronPigs," he said. "It's not the Allentown-Hershey IronPigs."

Earlier Tuesday, lawyers for Republican lawmakers cross-examined University of Michigan political science professor Jowei Chen, who testified he had a computer program draw 1,000 simulated maps that were all more neutral than the actual political map.

Chen's maps were drawn according to five criteria: keeping equal populations across districts, maintaining contiguity of districts, minimizing the number of split counties, minimizing the number of split municipalities, and keeping districts as geographically compact as possible.

A lawyer for Turzai asked whether other, nonpartisan criteria could account for the current map; Chen said it did not fall within the scope of his analysis. The lawyer also questioned Chen's methodology, including its not taking into account the previous congressional map and determining whether an area is Republican or Democratic based on a simple majority of votes cast in previous elections.

He also walked Chen through some of the maps the program had drawn, saying some of the districts in those samples were sprawling and had irregular borders.

The trial is expected to last through the week. The case, League of Women Voters v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, has been fast-tracked by the Supreme Court as a matter of public interest, and Commonwealth Court Judge P. Kevin Brobson is tasked with issuing findings of facts and conclusions of law by the end of the year.

The Supreme Court will then make its decision soon after, likely in early January; if the challenge is successful and the state's map is declared unconstitutional, it could be ordered redrawn before the 2018 elections.