On a Quest to End Gerrymandering and Make a “Good Map”

Anne Hanna.

They canvass. They lobby. They protest. Concerned citizens insert themselves into the political process on behalf of the public good in different ways. Anne Hanna, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, became politically active in the best way she knew how: by using her computational and data analysis skills in the fight against partisan gerrymandering — a fight that is front-and-center in Pennsylvania right now.

Last year, Hanna joined Concerned Citizens for Democracy (CCFD), a nonprofit organization of lawyers, mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers and others, who are committed to restoring democracy in Pennsylvania by ending partisan gerrymandering, which is the deliberate drawing of voting districts to benefit a particular political party. As a member of CCFD, Hanna served as an expert witness in Agre v. Wolf, a gerrymandering case filed in U.S. District Court and currently on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

While my interview with Hanna touched on Agre, as well as on a similar case, Diamond v. Torres, which has been stayed in District Court, we focused primarily on the Pennsylvania state case, whose rapidly moving pieces have been making daily headlines in the sprint to finalize a congressional district map in Pennsylvania before the May primaries. This case is League of Women Voters v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The case centers on the claim that Pennsylvania’s 2011 congressional district map constitutes a partisan gerrymander that violates the state constitution. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed, finding the 2011 map in violation of the Free and Equal Elections Clause. In its order, the court set in motion a timetable for creating a new district map. Because Gov. Wolf and the Pennsylvania General Assembly failed to agree on a map by the date set forth in this timetable, the court has stepped in and will select its own map by February 19.

Map proposed by Anne Hanna.

Hanna says that making a “good map” is an issue of integrating politically neutral legal criteria with quantitative analysis. In other words, redistricting is fundamentally “an engineering problem, not a political problem.” Hanna created her own proposed map, which was included in a CCFD amicus brief filed in the case, by using the neutral criteria laid out by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in its order. Relying on factors enumerated in the state constitution, the court held that all congressional districts must be compact, contiguous (meaning all parts of the district are within the district’s borders) and as equal in population as possible (which has come to mean within plus or minus one person). In addition, counties and other political subdivisions should remain intact, only to be divided for the purpose of equalizing population. Hanna adds that if a county or other subdivision must be split, it should be split into as few pieces as possible.

Map submitted by Republican leaders that was rejected by Gov. Wolf.

She uses these same criteria to evaluate other maps, such as the one submitted by Republican legislative leaders to Gov. Wolf under the court order. From the carved-up remains of Montgomery County to the non-compact districts in the western part of the state, Hanna pointed to repeated examples of how the Republican mapmakers reached into counties to select voters, deliberately diluting the Democratic vote. She described their effort as a “pretend fix,” and agreed with the governor’s decision to reject it.

With the final decision on the congressional district map in the hands of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Hanna is reasonably confident that voters in the commonwealth will have a “good map” for the 2018 elections, despite an expected attempt by Republican legislators to create additional roadblocks, potentially in federal court.

Adding another wrinkle to this complicated problem, Hanna cautioned that no matter how good the map is that is handed down by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, it will only be a short-term solution to the problem of gerrymandering in this state. After the 2020 census, the General Assembly will be tasked with drawing a new district map. Hanna warned that we can expect more gerrymandering during that process, making it critically important for voters to consider candidates’ views on gerrymandering when voting for state legislators in the 2020 election.

Hanna believes that the best way to end the cycle of gerrymandering is by removing the responsibility for redistricting from the legislature altogether, and putting it into the hands of an independent commission. Of course, any such commission would have to be guided by good standards, like the ones laid out by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the League of Women Voters case. The nonprofit organization Fair Districts PA has been lobbying to amend the state constitution in order to create an independent redistricting commission. Currently, there are bills on this issue in committee in both the Pennsylvania House and Senate. Although a majority of representatives now support the House bill, the Republican chairman of the State Government Committee has yet to give the bill a hearing.

“Fundamentally, the redistricting issue is about who has the power,” said Hanna. “Do the people of Pennsylvania have the power, or do the legislators have the power?” She continued, “I hope that the new map is the start of us returning the power to the people.”

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