Courts must draw the line on gerrymandering

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(AP) Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania is a joke — a bad joke that needs a constitutional correction.

The good news is that court and legislative scalpels are being sharpened that could — the key word being “could" — cut up distorted voting-district maps and inject some fairness into this process.

But first, a quiz:

What do U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, and a nonprofit group called Fair Districts PA have in common?

They hold the future of democracy in their hands — at least the part that says the people's representatives in Washington and state capitols should, proportionately, reflect the feelings and leanings of the folks back home.

Gerrymandering defeats this principle. It allows a party in power (Republicans or Democrats, they're equally opportunistic), to pack legislative and congressional districts by party registration to dominate elections.

Pennsylvania is considered by many observers the most gerrymandered state in the U.S.

That assertion is borne out the freaky districts themselves, breaking up towns and communities, snaking around in search of Rs or Ds. The tortured 7 Congressional District in suburban Philadelphia may be the best (or worst) example in the country. The 17 District, which connects the Easton area to Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, is an abomination, too. It's a “super" Democratic enclave, which allows for a greater number of majority-Republican districts around Pennsylvania.

Consider that Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state, 5 to 4. Helped by a GOP-directed redrawing of districts, Republicans hold 13 of Pennsylvania's 18 congressional districts.

Unfair? Yes.

Unconstitutional? That's what we need to find out.

The case before the U.S. Supreme Court, argued earlier this month, alleges that Republican legislators in Wisconsin used majority power and highly evolved computer programs to tilt districts in their favor. The court heard a similar case from Pennsylvania in 2004 and declined to overturn anything — but Kennedy, the swing vote that 5-4 decision, left the door open to court action if things were to get worse.

Today's gerrymandering has taken a giant step forward. In past years the Supreme Court has rejected a stacking of the deck against minority voters; the question now is whether partisan shakedowns in redistricting violate the Constitution's guarantee of representative government.

We believe that it does — and the proof is in the electoral pudding.

With the high court divided, it will be up to Kennedy, still the swing vote, to decide if Wisconsin's districts have taken an unconstitutional turn. Any reversal could have a limited impact — or it could establish a standard applicable to other states.

It's time for the court to upset a badly loaded apple cart — if not in time for the 2018 elections, to guide the 2020 elections — and most critically, the redrawing of districts after the 2020 Census.

The Easton Express-Times

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