Pennsylvania’s commonwealth court green-lighted the state Senate Republicans’ election probe this week; the state Supreme Court has meanwhile declined to take up the remapping of congressional districts.
As a result of the commonwealth court’s ruling, the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee may proceed with its subpoenas of voter records. The Supreme Court’s decision means Gov. Tom Wolf (D) will likely have to work out a compromise with the Republican state legislature on congressional reapportionment.
Both rulings are political blows to Democrats.
In deciding the election-review case, the lower court rejected a petition by the state Senate Democratic leadership and former Acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid (D) to quash subpoenas Senate Republicans have issued to obtain voter records. The information requested for the probe of 2020 and 2021 elections includes the state-issued ID numbers and partial Social Security numbers of all 9 million registered voters in Pennsylvania.
Senate Republicans have hired the Iowa-based firm Envoy Sage, LLC to review those and other germane records as part of the investigation. Democrats have argued that putting such data in the hands of a private vendor violates voters’ privacy rights. Republicans have countered that official protocol will reliably safeguard citizens’ privacy and that the Department of State presently contracts with a private, South Dakota-based election-software company which has general access to the information about which Democrats have fretted.
“Today’s ruling upholds the General Assembly’s clear legal and constitutional authority to provide oversight of our election system,” Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-PA-Bellefonte) said in a statement. “We have always intended to take every step necessary to protect the personal information of voters. Our resolve to protect this data has never wavered, and we look forward to proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that we can safeguard this information effectively.”
Corman said the investigation is necessary to identify needed improvements in Pennsylvania’s voting system. In the last two years, that system has undergone swift change, particularly with implementation of no-excuse absentee voting.
The Supreme Court’s redistricting ruling has also disappointed the state’s progressives. Pennsylvania’s General Assembly is tasked with redrawing congressional districts decennially in response to population shifts determined by the U.S. Census. This year, the need for a new map is all the more pressing because the Keystone State’s relatively sluggish population growth means that the state will lose a congressional seat, necessitating a map of 17 districts rather than the current 18.
Last month, after seeking public input, the House State Government Committee selected a congressional map largely drawn by a private citizen, Amanda Holt of Lehigh County, and then made revisions of its own. A House floor vote on that plan, which slightly improves Republicans’ electoral prospects, is expected this week but Wolf has indicated his opposition.
The process of approving new districts is taking longer than the deadline on which the Pennsylvania Department of State insisted: the end of 2021. In light of the governor and legislators’ inability to agree on a new congressional map before then, 16 Pennsylvania voters—many of them politically active Democrats—sued, asking the state Supreme Court to impose its own map.
Although the high court declined to do that, it did leave open the possibility that petitioners could “reapply for similar relief in this Court, as future developments may dictate.” Two Democratic members of the majority-Democrat court, David Wecht and Christine Donohue, noted their disagreement with the ruling not to intervene forthwith.
“The adoption of a congressional map that satisfies the dictates of state and federal law is of immediate public importance to the citizens of the Commonwealth, and considerations occasioned by further delay of these proceedings counsel strongly in favor of this Court’s intervention,” Wecht wrote in a dissenting opinion.
Should the Supreme Court ultimately decide to take over congressional redistricting and instate its own remapped districts, public reaction will be easy to foresee, for the court has taken such action before. In early 2018, a majority of justices said that the 2011 map created by Republican lawmakers and signed by Gov. Tom Corbett (R) resulted from partisan gerrymandering and that the court needed to impose a new map of its own. Republicans blasted the liberal majority of justices for enacting a map that advantaged Democrats despite lacking explicit constitutional authority to do so.
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