On Wednesday night, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court finally released its majority opinion explaining why Republicans’ gerrymander of Pennsylvania’s congressional districts violates the state constitution. (On Jan. 22, the court had issued a brief order directing the Legislature to redraw the illegal districts without fully explaining its reasoning.) Justice Debra McCloskey Todd’s 139-page opinion for the court is thorough and persuasive—and, critically, its reasoning isn’t entirely limited to Pennsylvania. Instead, Todd illustrates how dozens of other state constitutions may be interpreted to protect voting rights more robustly than the U.S. Constitution does. Her decision will arm activists in every state with a powerful new tool in the fight against political redistricting.
The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether partisan gerrymandering runs afoul of the First and 14th amendments. But, as Todd explained, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had no obligation to wait for SCOTUS’s decision in Gill v. Whitford, because the Pennsylvania Constitution provides rights independent from the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, the state constitution—which actually predates its federal counterpart—declares that all elections “shall be free and equal.”
Nearly 150 years ago, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that this provision requires all votes to be “equally potent” in any election. In 1914, the court reiterated that this clause guarantees that “every voter has the same right as every other voter,” and “each voter under the law has the right to cast his ballot and have it honestly counted.” And in 1986, the court clarified that any law that “dilutes the vote of any segment of the constituency” infringes upon the Free and Equal Elections Clause.