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Groups sue Pa. over congressional district gerrymandering

Pennsylvania's congressional districts were rigged by legislative Republicans in 2011 to ensure the party controls a majority of the House delegation in Washington, a suit filed Thursday charges.

HARRISBURG — Calling gerrymandering "one of the greatest threats to American democracy," the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania sued Thursday to have the state's congressional district map thrown out.

Future maps, the suit urges, should be drawn without "burdening or penalizing an identifiable group, a political party, or individual voters based on their political beliefs."

Filed in Commonwealth Court on behalf of Democratic voters in each of the state's 18 congressional districts, the complaint argues that the map, drafted in 2011, "was the product of a national movement by the Republican Party to entrench its own representatives in power."

The GOP did so, the suit argues, by "utilizing the latest advances in mapmaking technologies and big data to gerrymander districts more effectively than ever before."

At a news conference Thursday, lawyers involved in the case said both parties engage in gerrymandering, the drawing of district boundaries to maximize political advantage. But they contended that a Republican-controlled legislature created blatantly partisan maps in 2011 that allowed the GOP to take 13 of 18 seats the next year while winning only about half of the ballots cast overall.

"The map is basically unresponsive to the will of the people," said David P. Gersch, senior counsel at the Washington law firm of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer. "When the Democrats are doing well, they get five seats; when the Democrats are doing poorly, they get five seats. It's the same."

Congressional districts in Pennsylvania are drawn by state legislators, who adopt a map as legislation and forward it to the governor, as with any other bill. After the 2010 election, Republicans controlled the governor's mansion and both chambers of the legislature, giving them free rein.

Some of the resulting districts have drawn national scrutiny. The New York-based Brennan Center for Justice listed Pennsylvania among three states whose maps "have the most extreme levels of partisan bias."

Gersch noted that U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan's Delaware County-based Seventh District reaches out to Montgomery County, to a spot in King of Prussia where it's only as wide as a restaurant called Creed's Seafood & Steaks. In Coatesville, Chester County, there is a spot that is only as wide as an endoscopy center.

"This is as raw partisanship as you can imagine," Gersch said, showing how the Seventh District's shape has changed from the 1950s, when it was fairly rectangular, to the twisted shape it holds today. The Washington Post called it "Goofy kicking Donald Duck."

Mary Elizabeth Lawn, a Democrat, said that before 2011 she was in the First District. After redistricting, she was moved into Meehan's Seventh District, which has swung comfortably Republican in every election after that.

"I joined this lawsuit because my vote and the votes of my neighbors have been diluted by the current map, and I believe we deserve more accurate representation," said Lawn, a chaplain at a retirement community.

Drew Crompton, the general counsel to Senate Republicans, called the suit baseless, noting that 36 House Democrats voted for the maps. The suit ascribes that to the fact that "passage of the bill \[was\] a fait accompli."

"Serious concerns exist concerning the disenfranchisement of Pennsylvania voters" that would ensue if courts invalidated the maps years later, Crompton said.

Drawing district maps is an inherently political process, and judges have often shied from intruding on it. A bid to challenge Pennsylvania's districts after the 2000 census, for one, failed in both state and federal court.

The outcome may be different this time, said Adam Bonin, an election law attorney in Philadelphia who works on Democratic causes.

"There's no question this is a partisan gerrymander," he said of the 2011 map. "The question has always been: How do you prove it?"

The lawsuit, he noted, relies on a number of mathematical approaches to quantify the map's partisan lean, and he said the data could provide convincing evidence. "Now it's not just, 'Gosh, this map looks bad,' but, 'We have a formula to show it.'"

Among other metrics, the suit draws on recent computer models compiled by three Pittsburgh academics.

"You start with the map you've been given and make a bunch of random changes," said one of the researchers, Carnegie Mellon University math professor Wesley Pegden. A computer simulation makes a large series of small changes along district boundaries, randomly swapping one census tract for another, to see how that affected partisan balance.

"When you make these changes, you just get better and better districts" in terms of competitiveness, he said. The fact that choosing boundaries at random made districts more competitive, according to Pegden, suggested the original map was uncompetitive on purpose.

The political landscape may be shifting in other ways. In 2015, Democrats swept three open state Supreme Court seats, giving the party a majority on the court that may ultimately decide the case.

Could that improve this lawsuit's odds? "Absolutely," Bonin said.