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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf thinks governors have a huge role to play in 2021 redistricting

Wolf just won a gerrymandering battle in his home state.

Electoral College Voters Cast Ballots Amid Protests Mark Makela/Getty Images

Democrats won their biggest victory against Republican gerrymandering a few weeks ago, after Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ruled the state’s 2010 congressional map unconstitutionally partisan and released a new one this week.

To give you a sense of how much the old Pennsylvania map benefited Republicans, RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende wrote in 2011 that “Republicans ... took a state that is two or three points more Democratic than the country as a whole, and created 12 districts (out of 18) that are more Republican than the country as a whole. They did so by creating what can only be called a group of Rorschach-inkblot districts in southeastern Pennsylvania.”

The new map that looks much different, with cleanly drawn districts rather than inkblots. It most likely means Pennsylvania’s future elections will be much more competitive. It’s also great news for Democrats, who now have the potential to pick up five more congressional seats.

Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf had a hand in the process. After the old map was struck down, Republicans in the state legislature floated a new (similar-looking) map that Wolf vetoed on February 13. With the governor and the legislature unable to agree on a new map, the process was kicked over to the Democratic-majority state Supreme Court, which released its version on Monday.

With other states — including Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Maryland (a rare state where Democrats have gerrymandered the districts) — in similar situations, many people are taking Wolf as an example of how to tackle gerrymandering in their own states. “I am a living, breathing example of why Democratic governors matter,” Wolf said at a Friday press conference.

The Democratic Party is putting a new focus on governors races in key states, with an eye toward redistricting. With the 2020 census the next opportunity to redraw congressional districts, the 2018 elections are a critical time for Democrats to pick up state legislature and gubernatorial seats, where they are badly outnumbered. In 34 states, the governor who will be in office for the next redistricting will be elected in November. So if Democrats want a chance to weigh in on 2021 redistricting, they need to make significant electoral gains this year.

To that end, the Democratic Governors Association recently announced a new initiative that will put $20 million toward governors races in Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, states where they want to make sure a Democratic governor is elected — or reelected — in 2018.

Even with the newly redrawn map, Pennsylvania’s fight is far from over. The state’s Republicans recently filed a new emergency appeal to the US Supreme Court to try to invalidate the latest map, and some have called for the state’s Supreme Court justices’ impeachment.

Wolf, however, doesn’t seem worried that federal courts will weigh in on a state Supreme Court ruling. “The federal Supreme Court is reluctant — and I think legitimately so — to step in when it comes to issues that go directly to the heart of the state Constitution,” the governor told me.

I spoke with Wolf this weekend about how gerrymandering became such a big issue in Pennsylvania and what role governors can play when it comes time to redraw maps after 2020. Below is our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Ella Nilsen

I know there’s been a lot happening with Pennsylvania’s congressional map in the past few weeks. I wanted to go back and talk to you a little bit about the initial map that state Republicans put forward and what your thoughts were when you saw it.

Tom Wolf

Well, I didn’t see that it was any better. It actually had some things that I thought were worse. The key was that it was still an outlier, it’s still gerrymandered. I’m not sure how anybody could look at that and say it was fair. In fact, nobody I know there said it was fair. No one said, “This is a fair map.”

I waited, as I said, over the weekend, to let outside, objective voices weigh in, and they did. Professors in Princeton and Florida, reputable newspapers around the country, looked in and said, “This is the same thing.” It wasn’t nearly universal; it was universal condemnation. So I did what I did and said, “This is not a fair map.” My job was to say, “Is this fair?” and my answer was no.

Ella Nilsen

What are your thoughts on the revised map that the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court recently submitted?

Tom Wolf

It looks fair to me. I haven’t seen the mathematical, actual calculations, but it’s pretty close to what I put in and mine was right around the median around the bell curve. A fair map. It was not an outlier. This was fairly close to what I would pose as a fair map, and I think they did a good job.

Ella Nilsen

I saw yesterday that Pennsylvania Republicans are appealing to the US Supreme Court on this?

Tom Wolf

I think there are two appeals, yeah.

Ella Nilsen

Have you heard where that might go? Do you have any comments on the appeals?

Tom Wolf

I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t see how that has any more legs than the original stay appeal that Justice [Samuel] Alito turned down. The federal Supreme Court is reluctant — and I think legitimately so — to step in when it comes to issues that go directly to the heart of the state Constitution. That’s what this case, it was decided by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, was based on the Pennsylvania Constitution, not the US Constitution.

Ella Nilsen

What have you been hearing from your constituents on this issue? Do you feel like people in Pennsylvania are concerned about the congressional map?

Tom Wolf

Yeah, yeah! And it’s been really interesting because it is somewhat of a technical issue. I have a PhD in political science, so it’s something I’ve been studying for a long time, but this is not something that people are looking at as something that’s very esoteric and far removed from their everyday lives.

I think there is a visceral reaction when you talk about gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. There’s a visceral disgust with the unfairness of the game. People want a fair game, and they recognize that at the heart of an unfair, rigged game that is undermining the heart of the democracy that I think we all have to care about, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat.

Ella Nilsen

What do you see as the role of governors in redistricting in the coming years? You obviously are the governor that has so far been able to do this successfully, but what about other states across the nation?

Tom Wolf

Well, there are 35 states — 35 of us that have a constitutional role in drawing the election map for the US House. Pennsylvania’s one of those 35 states. In our state, the election map for the US House race every 10 years is drawn up by legislation in the general assembly, and then that legislation — like any other legislation — is either signed or vetoed by the governor of the state. That’s what the state Supreme Court had this legislature do this time, the governor do this time, and that’s the role.

So regardless of what happens in terms of the appeals that are out there now, between now and 2021, I guess ... in 2021, governors — Republican and Democratic — will have the ability to sign or veto the maps that come out of their state legislatures. It’s a central role for governors.

Ella Nilsen

Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) [the Democratic Governors Association chair] feels the national Democratic Party hasn’t been putting enough resources into governors races in past years. I’m wondering if you share the same thoughts, if you think the national party is now putting more of an emphasis on governors races and state politics than they have in the past.

Tom Wolf

I’ve been doing this for three years. And I can’t speak to what’s happened in the past. This year, the Democratic Party in a lot of ways has been, I think, [giving] appropriate attention to governors races. They recognize, as I just said, in 35 states, the governor actually signs or vetoes the bill that determines what the map is going to look like. When both sides are predisposed to do a fair map, it doesn’t matter. But in the last decade or so, it has mattered because the other side has not proposed fair maps. So it’s all that much more important for us to have a check on that impulse to do unfair things to the map.

Ella Nilsen

What are some nonpartisan ways states can go about redistricting in the future? Is there anything you are looking at in Pennsylvania?

Tom Wolf

Yeah, there are some good bills. Both the Senate and the House are overwhelmingly Republican, but I know in the Senate, the chair of the committee is looking at a number of bills. At this point, I’m not sure there’s much activity on bills that have been presented that are in committee on the House side, but some of the legislation that’s being proposed right now I think is really good. And it does move more toward more of a nonpartisan effort — one that moves this away from where politicians are choosing the voters, back to what it’s supposed to be, where voters actually choose their politicians.