There is no doubt that a Pennsylvania special election for US House district 18 will be held on March 13, but there is considerable doubt about who exactly the winner of the race will be representing. Depending on a rushed redistricting process it is even possible that any or all of the three candidates will find themselves living outside the district before voters head for the polls.
US Supreme Court refuses to intervene
The axe has been hanging over Pennsylvania’s current set of US House districts since the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the boundaries of the state’s 18 congressional districts were a violation of the state constitution. The Republican controlled state legislature had drafted districts to favor their own party too much, the court ruled, and ordered that they be redrawn to favor the Republicans less.
That ruling by the technically-non-partisan-but-widely-perceived-to-be-Democratic Pennsylvania Supreme Court triggered an enormous amount of uncertainty for the US midterm elections in November. More immediately, the ruling could potentially result in a serious legitimacy issue for the winner of the Pennsylvania special election in March. Although normally proponents of states rights, the Pennsylvania GOP decided to put party-advantage over party-principle and appeal to the US Supreme Court to halt the redistricting.
Constitutionally this was a tenuous argument. The US Supreme Court is tasked with interpreting the US Constitution, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court with the Pennsylvania Constitution. Unsurprisingly, the justices in Washington declined from making a ruling about a document they have no jurisdiction over.
Pennsylvania Special Election Follies
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ordered that the redistricting must be done by Friday, compressing a process that would normally be done over months into a short few days. If the Republican legislature fails to pass a new set of boundaries that Democratic governor Tom Wolf is happy with, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided it will do the redistricting itself.
Whatever map is eventually agreed it will not change who votes in the Pennsylvania special election for the 18th congressional district on March 13th. But it will almost certainly create some sort of crisis of legitimacy for whoever wins. The question will be how big a crisis will it be.
Pennsylvania legislators can theoretically draw the map however they want as long as the governor gives his assent. We know that there will be an 18th district at the end of the process, but there is no guarantee it will resemble the current 18th district much. It stands to reason the new version will be something like the current 18th district, but the district will almost certainly be redrawn to some extent.
This means some of the voters choosing between Republican Rick Saccone, Democrat Conor Lamb, or Libertarian Drew Miller, will have been moved into another congressional district before the vote actually takes place. And some voters who are moved into the 18th district from other districts will not be able to cast a vote at all.
It is also possible that, once the boundaries are drawn, Saccone, Lamb or Miller may find themselves living in another district!
According to one of Saccone’s advisors, “You could have a new congressman drawn out of his district completely.”
Likelihood of a big redistricting change
A large-scale redistricting that would undermine the legitimacy of the Pennsylvania special election or leave one of the candidates outside his district may seem unlikely, but there is a real reason to suspect that protecting district 18 will not be a priority for Pennsylvania’s legislators.
Twelve other Pennsylvania representatives, both Republican or Democrat, are expected to run for reelection in November. They will each be fighting tooth and nail to prevent a change to their district boundaries that disadvantages them. That means the remaining six districts are the most likely to be redrawn. Without a current incumbent at all, and no guarantee which party will ultimately prevail in the special election, district 18 could be the whipping boy of the redistricting process.
Redrawing district lines is fraught with complications, and Republican legislators will want a quick solution to prevent the process being taken over by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. It is impossible to predict what form the new district 18 will look like when they are finished.
Whoever wins the Pennsylvania special election, the Democrats see themselves as the winner from the state supreme court’s intervention.
“It’s still early in the process … but I’m very encouraged by what this decision could mean for the people of Pennsylvania,” Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, who heads the Democratic House campaign, was reported in the York Daily Record as saying.
But any advantage seized by the Democrats will be tempered by the demographic shifts that have taken place across the country. As Democratic voters become more and more concentrated in cities, it becomes harder and harder to draw districts that have majority Democratic voters. If the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determine the new boundaries, they may do their best to try their luck.