In representative democracies, voters are supposed to choose their elected officials. But, in Pennsylvania, it’s often the other way around.
The violation of this core principle explains much of the dysfunction in state and national government. It also explains why Harrisburg was sliced into two congressional districts and is represented, in the House of Representatives, by conservative Republicans from faraway Hazleton and York.
If you’re outraged by this state of affairs, you can blame gerrymandering—the long-standing practice of politicians drawing district boundaries to favor their own political party and their electoral survival.
“Pennsylvania ranks fifth from the bottom in gerrymandering, and it’s especially bad with congressional redistricting,” said state Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Lehigh County), who is co-sponsoring a bill that would transfer the power of redistricting from self-interested party leaders to a nonpartisan citizen’s commission.
The need for reform is evident by examining a map of Pennsylvania’s congressional districts. Many meander geographically. Some blatantly violate the state constitution by their lack of compactness or because they divide counties, cities and municipalities. The 7th congressional district, outside Philadelphia, is so grotesquely contorted that it’s referred to as “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.”
Republican leaders in the General Assembly deliberately drew these district boundaries after the 2010 national census to favor their party. This practice is outlawed in almost all democratic nations except the United States. Maryland, for example, is gerrymandered to favor Democrats. As Karl Rove, advisor to former President George W. Bush, famously stated, “He who controls redistricting can control Congress.”
Gerrymandering particularly harms Harrisburg’s 50,000 residents. Republican Party leaders divided its mostly Democratic voters into two Congressional districts to dilute their influence—a practice known as cracking.
Most of Harrisburg belongs to Rep. Scott Perry’s district, which includes the eastern part of Cumberland County and all of York and Adams counties. Harrisburg’s far southern neighborhoods were placed in Rep. Lou Barletta’s district, a bizarre construct that includes parts of nine counties and extends from Shippensburg all the way to Wyoming County near the New York border.
Perry and Barletta don’t need Harrisburg’s support to win re-election, giving them minimal incentive to represent the city’s interests in Congress. For instance, Perry and Barletta both supported “Trumpcare,” which would take away affordable health insurance for thousands of their Harrisburg constituents.
Gerrymandering also deprives Harrisburg of a Democratic voice in the state Senate. Harrisburg lies in the 15th district, which includes most of Dauphin County. Democrat Rob Teplitz won this seat in 2012, but he narrowly lost to Republican John DiSanto in 2016, partially because Republican leaders removed the Democratic bastions of Steelton, Highspire and Paxtang from the district and replaced them with heavily Republican Perry County. DiSanto won Perry County by about 8,500 votes, offsetting Teplitz’s 5,100-vote margin in Dauphin County.
Gerrymandering is a problem for everyone, not just Harrisburg. It makes citizens frustrated that their votes don’t matter. It contributes to corruption, gridlock and hyper-partisanship in the federal and state governments, where elected officials often seem more devoted to party loyalty than the nation’s welfare.
“Because of gerrymandering, legislators don’t really listen to the public anymore,” said Boscola. “They just listen to their party base. This is not good lawmaking. We need more compromise. Harrisburg is much more partisan now than it was 20 years ago.”
Many districts are created to be safe for one party or the other, which deprives voters of choice in competitive elections. In the 2016 general election, 13 of Pennsylvania’s 25 state senators and 97 out of 203 representatives did not have to face a major-party challenger.
Gerrymandering also gives party bosses the ability to enforce strict party-line discipline by taking away the district of any member who dares to cross the aisle on key legislation. Or a party leader can arrange for a more ideologically pure candidate to run against an out-of-favor incumbent in the next primary. Gerrymandering thus contributes to the nation’s deepening partisan chasm.
Boscola has seen these nefarious tactics used on friends and on herself.
“You can be popular with your voters back home, but if you’re not beholden to your party leader, you can be X’d out,” she said.
Sense of Urgency
Gerrymandering has been around since the 1700s, but it has become more egregious recently because party leaders now have access to detailed mapping data and voter profiles. This trove of information allows politicians to fine-tune district boundaries and predict election outcomes with greater surgical precision than ever before.
Because the redistricting process is written into Pennsylvania’s constitution, changing the system requires an amendment. Several proposed amendments are circulating within the General Assembly, but they’re currently stuck in committees.
Amending the constitution is exceedingly difficult. The House and Senate will have to pass the exact same bill in two consecutive legislative sessions (2017-18 and 2019-20). If the bill clears that high hurdle, it then will have to win a majority of votes in a 2020 statewide referendum.
Timing is critical. Pennsylvania will lose one or two congressional seats after the 2020 census, automatically triggering the redistricting process. Boundaries drawn after that census will shape the commonwealth’s House delegation for the next decade, so reformers feel a sense of urgency.
Fair Districts PA, a nonpartisan statewide organization of volunteers, is leading the charge. FDPA is promoting the most comprehensive legislation: Senate Bill 22 and House Bill 722. These virtually identical bills would give the power of redistricting to an independent committee of 11 Pennsylvania citizens who would operate in a transparent fashion.
Committee members would include four Democrats, four Republicans and three independents and would be selected by a random computer algorithm from a list of qualified voters, preventing party leaders from rigging the outcome. Seven committee members would be required to finalize district lines, and at least one member of each pool would have to approve the map. Each pool must reflect the commonwealth’s racial, geographic and gender diversity.
SB22 and HB722 enjoy bipartisan sponsorship in both chambers of the General Assembly. Harrisburg’s state representative, Democrat Patty Kim, is co-sponsoring HB722. Sen. DiSanto also supports redistricting reform in principle, but he has not signed up as a co-sponsor of SB22.
Both bills face daunting odds.
“We’re taking power from the leaders of the two major parties,” said James Allen of FDPA’s Dauphin County branch, who notes that the bosses can employ a variety of tactics to stall or kill the bills. “They control the process, so those who have power will fight very hard against changes.”
Boscola thinks lawmakers are starting to feel public pressure, but much more will be needed before party leaders conclude that it’s in their interest to go along with an independent redistricting commission.
“Keep the pressure up,” Boscola said. “Bombard legislators with calls. Keep hammering away, and they will start to listen. But it has to be relentless.”
Allen said that it will take “a massive commitment” to get redistricting reform done.
“Is it going to be easy?” No,” he said. “But if you believe change is possible, it can be done.”
For more information on gerrymandering and the campaign for redistricting reform, visit www.fairdistrictspa.com.
Author: Robert Naeye