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Lawyer: 'Voter-Proof' Pennsylvania Congressional Map Favors GOP

Matt Rourke
Electors arrive for Pennsylvania's Electoral College at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Monday, Dec. 19, 2016.

A lawyer for a group of Democratic voters in Pennsylvania told a federal court Monday that it should throw out the state's congressional district map favoring Republican candidates because it was created to be "voter-proof."

Thomas Geoghegan noted that Pennsylvania is a swing state that supported both Barack Obama and Donald Trump for president. Control of power in the state has been topsy-turvy, alternating the party of governors, for instance, and electing U.S. senators from opposing parties. Under the previous map, congressional representation changed from election to election.

But since 2012, Republicans have won 13 of the state's 18 districts in each election — even in 2012, when more votes were cast for Democrats than Republicans in House races statewide.

"They took data from Democratic wave years to make sure that even if there are Democratic wave years, this entrenchment of power is going to hold," Geoghegan said. He described the shape of one suburban Philadelphia district, as others have, as "Goofy kicking Donald Duck."

His arguments came Monday in the first day of a trial over the state's congressional map. The plaintiffs say the court should not allow either party to create districts to boost any political party. That makes the case different from other political gerrymandering cases — including one that the U.S. Supreme Court heard in October but has not yet ruled on. Generally, plaintiffs in this type of case ask courts to disallow too much political favoritism in mapmaking.

The theory in this case is so novel that the three judges considering the case have not yet ruled on what exactly the plaintiffs must prove to prevail.

A lawyer for Republican legislative leaders said the new theory doesn't come up in any of the previous cases about creating congressional districts — and that the case should have been dismissed before it got to trial.

Jason Torchinsky said the panel would hear from plaintiffs on various grievances about the state of politics, but not ways in which they're actually harmed by the state's political map.

Further, he said, the judges should not worry about the party makeup of the state's congressional delegation. Elections for U.S. House seats are not conducted on a statewide basis, he noted.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs asked Daniel McGlone, who builds and analyzes maps for a Philadelphia firm, to walk through the effects of the 2011 map. McGlone described how some districts became more heavily Democratic. For instance, one district in Philadelphia and some of its suburbs had a narrow arm reaching from the Democratic city of Chester to the Democratic community of Swarthmore.

The effect, McGlone said, was to make that district, which was previously Democratic, even more heavily so — and to make the neighboring district more heavily Republican.

He said other districts had Democratic areas split into multiple districts in a way that helped Republicans. He pointed to western Pennsylvania's Erie County as an example. The county, previously represented by a Democrat, was split, with the city of Erie and the rest of the county separated into two predominantly Republican districts.

"If you can take a state that's pretty even and you can get all the Democrats in only four or five districts, I would argue that you've done a pretty good job of gerrymandering," McGlone said, adding that political voting results should not be used when establishing districts.

Torchinsky, building a defense that the Pennsylvania maps are not illegal, asked McGlone what the problem was: "You just don't like the way it went?"

McGlone also analyzed data state House Speaker Mike Turzai had at his disposal during the creation of the maps. He said it included detailed local partisan election information.

To make informed decisions, the public must receive unbiased truth.

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