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Elections Matter. Redistricting Matters More.

Poor redistricting. Given the tremendous impact redistricting has on all levels of government, voters simply do not tend to give it too much attention.

There are undoubtedly numerous reasons for this. For one, redistricting — the process by which legislators redraw the political boundaries defining what towns and communities they will represent at the next election — just isn’t a ‘sexy’ issue. It deals with technical issues like adjusting districts to account for population shifts and make sure each lawmaker represents about the same number of constituents as his or her colleague. It doesn’t easily lend itself to the types of human interest stories journalists use to pull readers into articles on, say, immigration, war, abortion, and many other high-profile issues.

It’s difficult to put a face to redistricting.

Also, unlike other issues, redistricting is only really pushed into the spotlight once a decade. Although voters have to live with its effects at every election, redistricting is really only brought up in discussion when legislators engage in it, after the U.S. Census information is released. Any disgust or disapproval inevitably dies down soon after, leaving lawmakers with little incentive to reform the system.

Redistricting allows lawmakers to redraw their districts in ways that benefit them. (Image from Governing Magazine's website.)

In fact, not only do lawmakers have little incentive to consider redistricting reform, they actually have every reason to actively oppose it, because reforming redistricting would dilute their own power to choose their constituents by drawing voters in or out of their districts.

For anyone who has watched the American version of the political drama House of Cards, the characters bring up redistricting several times as key to the Democrats’ efforts to hold onto the U.S. House of Representatives. They pin their hopes on a special election for Pennsylvania governor — because without a Democratic governor to oversee Pennsylvania redistricting, the Democrats are sure to lose a number of its U.S. House seats, and thus lose control of the House.

House of Cards is fiction, but the stakes are just as high in real life, as well. It was one of the first things Republicans in Texas did in 2003 once they took full control of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, allowing them to lock down their control. Democrats, knowing full well the power Republicans now wielded, broke quorum and fled the state rather than allow the legislature to meet and redistrict. Eventually, though, the Republican majority passed its redistricting plans, turning the 17-15 Democratic majority in Texas’ U.S. House delegation to a 21-11 Republican majority.

Pennsylvania serves as a reminder of the power of redistricting as well. Pennsylvania Republicans have controlled the redistricting process for decades. Most recently, that control paid off in 2012. Even though Democrats swept every office up for statewide election and received more than half of all votes cast in the state for U.S. House, Republicans not only kept their majorities in the state legislature, they actually gained a U.S. House seat.

After an election in which a majority of Pennsylvanians voted for a Democrat for U.S. House, Republicans still wound up holding a full 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 U.S. House seats – or about 72 percent of Pennsylvania’s U.S. House delegation.

(It should come as no surprise, then, that Pennsylvania Republicans have also put forward plans in recent years that would distribute electoral votes in presidential elections according to redistricting, rather than popular vote. For instance, if one of these proposals, put forward by PA Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi and Gov. Tom Corbett, had been in place in 2012, Gov. Mitt Romney would have lost the popular vote to President Barack Obama 52 percent to 47 percent — but Romney still would have taken home more electoral votes. Under this plan, Romney would have received 13 electoral vote to Obama’s 7 votes.)

Redistricting has very real effects on both state and national politics. The immigration legislation pending in Congress is a fairly good case study.

Although a rough consensus seems to have formed around immigration reform and the U.S. Senate passed immigration legislation by a healthy and bipartisan 68-32 vote, the bill has stalled in the U.S. House. This seems contrary to the post-2012 election narrative that Republicans are reevaluating their Hispanic outreach efforts, considering Hispanic voters tend to support comprehensive immigration reform. But it makes perfect sense once you consider U.S. House members’ narrow constituency.

After the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans swept into power in state capitols all over the country — just in time for redistricting. House Republicans’ seats are safe. Unlike U.S. Senate and presidential candidates, House Republicans do not have to worry at all about swaying Hispanic voters. Their districts have been specifically designed in a way to ensure they win the general election.

Instead, House Republicans have to worry about other Republicans challenging them in primary elections. As a result, they have to tack harder to the right to avoid offending their base voters and to fend off any primary challengers. That means opposing the immigration reform bill, which is generally unpopular with conservatives. This is not to say passing the bill is impossible, only that it is made much more difficult due to the perverse incentives created via redistricting.

And perhaps that is the hook that journalists need to raise awareness about and put a human face on redistricting — by connecting redistricting to other issues, such as the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America. At that point, it becomes less about lines on a map and more about the very real impact redistricting has on American families and communities.

FURTHER READING

2013 Legislative Preview Issue Brief: Elections.” Gaudini, Michael; Proft, Lena; & Rocha, J.J. Center for Politics and Governance.

Redistricting Texas: A Primer.” Gaudini, Michael.

The War on Democracy: Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania.” Gaudini, Michael.

Think Off-Year Elections are Unimportant? Think Again.” Gaudini, Michael. Narberth-Bala Cynwyd Patch.

Reforming Redistricting.” Gaudini, Michael. Baines Report.

Republicans Win Fewer Votes, but More Seats than Democrats.” CQ Voting and Elections Collection.

Immigration Reform: Clearing the First Hurdle.” Economist.

What You Should Know About Redistricting in PA,” Gaudini, Michael. Diniverse Major.

Corbett-Pileggi Election Plan Bad For Democracy,” Gaudini, Michael. Main Line Times.

What Would Have Happened in 2012 Under Gov. Corbett’s Election Plan?” Gaudini, Michael. Diniverse Major.

 

Redistricting Texas: A Primer

Click here to download my primer on redistricting in Texas. Below, you will find a very brief overview of the process to date.

OVERVIEW

Minutes after the end of Texas’ regular legislative session, Gov. Rick Perry called the House and Senate back for a special session. The focus of this special session: redistricting.

Redistricting is a contentious process — and Texas is no outlier. In addition to the normal political fights and legal challenges, the Lone Star state is also one of several states that  must submit their redistricting plans to the federal government for approval under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Texas legislator passed three redistricting plans (for the Texas House, Texas Senate, and Texas’ congressional seats) in 2011. Yet, due to legal wrangling and federal disapproval, Texas’ redistricting plans have remained in limbo. The state is currently operating under temporary maps drawn by federal judges.

State legislators are meeting in Austin right now to change that and adopt plans that will define Texas’ political boundaries for the rest of the decade.

FURTHER READING

Redistricting Texas: A Primer.” Gaudini, Michael, Diniverse Major.

2013 Legislative Preview Issue Brief: Elections.” Gaudini, Michael; Proft, Lena; & Rocha, J.J. Center for Politics and Governance.

Tribpedia: Redistricting.” Texas Tribune.

Texas Redistricting.” Texas Legislative Council.

 

What Would Have Happened in 2012 Under Gov. Corbett’s Election Plan?

Last session, Governor Tom Corbett and Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi unveiled a plan to change how Pennsylvania votes for president. Now that the 2012 election has actually been held, Pennsylvanians can see for themselves how that system would have impacted their votes.

But first, a bit of context. Americans do not vote for president directly. Instead, they vote through the Electoral College. In the Electoral College system, each state gets a number of electoral votes for president equal to their representation in Congress. Pennsylvania has 18 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 2 in the U.S. Senate, so therefore it gets 20 electoral votes.

States can choose to decide how they distribute those votes, but most states give all of their electoral votes to the presidential candidate that wins the statewide election. And, for most of American history, that has worked. Four times in the past, however, president have lost the popular vote but won the presidency: John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and George W. Bush.

The other key concept to keep in mind here is redistricting. Redistricting is the process by which legislators redraw political boundaries to account for population shifts. After all, people move, are born, and die every day. In order to make sure that elected officials represent about the same number of people, legislators redistrict their state and Congressional seats every 10 years using U.S. Census data. Without this, one official could end up representing several times as many people as another — even though they both only get one vote in Congress.

States redistrict differently. In Pennsylvania, Congressional redistricting is passed like any other bill. The General Assembly writes it and passes it, and the governor signs it. (There is a different system for General Assembly redistricting, but it is not relevant to this discussion.) There are also few prohibitions on how legislators can choose to redraw the political maps. Legislators cannot discriminate against voters based on race, but beyond that they generally have carte blanche.

This means that legislators can — and do — split up blocs of voters to help their party. If one area generally votes for Party X, legislators from Party Y can simply split up that area into numerous districts that each have a Party Y majority. Thus, Party Y maintains control by watering down Party X’s power — a process known as ‘gerrymandering.’

All of this means that whoever controls the General Assembly and the governorship essentially controls the political landscape of Pennsylvania. For the past few redistrictings, that has been the Republican Party. And so, they have drawn Congressional maps that benefit the Republican Party.

Here’s where Governor Corbett and Senator Pileggi’s plan comes in. It would have split Pennsylvania’s electoral votes by giving them to presidential candidates according to which Congressional districts they win. The candidate to win the entire state then gets an additional 2 electoral votes, to make up the difference between electoral votes and Congressional districts. Of course, the Republican Party is drawing those same Congressional districts that they want to use to distribute electoral votes.

So, how would Pennsylvania have fared if this plan was in place for the 2012 election? Well, President Obama won the Pennsylvania popular vote about 52% – 47%. Under the current system, this means Obama got 20 electoral votes. Under Governor Corbett and Senator Pileggi’s plan, however, this means Obama would have gotten 7 votes, while Governor Romney would have gotten 13 votes.

To put it another way: under Governor Corbett’s plan, Obama would have won the popular vote in Pennsylvania, but lost the electoral vote. Fortunately for President Obama, this would not have changed the outcome of the 2012 election. Other presidents would not have been so lucky. Had the Corbett system been in place in 1960, for example, John F. Kennedy would never have become President of the United States.

Elections will always be partisan affairs; what they should not be is undemocratic.

FURTHER READING

Michael J. Gaudini, “Corbett-Pileggi election plan bad for democracy,” Main Line Times.

Michael J. Gaudini, “Gerrymandering undermines democracy in Pennsylvania,” Main Line Times.

Michael J. Gaudini, “Redistricting Texas 2012: A Primer,” Diniverse Major.

Michael J. Gaudini, “What You Should Know About Redistricting in PA,” Diniverse Major.

Pennsylvania 2012 Election Results, CBS News.

 

I Voted For President! Now What?

Americans just do not like to vote.

For all of the talk of American democracy and the importance of the ballot, a strikingly small number of eligible Americans show up at the polls each November. Presidential elections, of course, see the largest level of turnout as a percentage of the voting age population. But for many Americans, that is it. The only time they see the inside of a voting booth is in a year that is divisible by four.

Take Pennsylvania, for example. In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, about 64 percent of eligible Pennsylvanians showed up at the polls. That was a couple points above the nationwide turnout of about 62 percent.

Just two years later, those numbers were down to 42 percent for Pennsylvania and 41 percent for the United States. That election, significantly, decided which party would control not only the House of Representatives, but numerous state legislatures and governor’s seats. Last year, turnout in Pennsylvania dropped even lower, to 32 percent.

The Keystone State is no outlier; most states see similarly dismal figures. Why, then, is voter turnout so much lower in midterm and off-year elections? To simplify: the president. Or, rather, the absence of a presidential candidate on the ballot. The president is the only official elected nationwide in the United States. Campaigns for the office are fought over high-stakes national and global issues. The media cover the proceedings extensively.

And the perception that there will be relatively high voter participation, possibly reinforced by friendly conversation and media coverage, could have the effect of turning out more voters simply due to social pressure. That is, people go to the polls because they do not want to be the person caught not voting.*

All of this can make presidential elections seem more relevant than off-year or midterm elections. But these latter elections — which generally feature many state and local positions — often have a direct impact on voters’ everyday lives. State and local governments are the ‘boots on the ground.’ They are responsible for keeping your neighborhood safe, paving your streets, picking up your trash, educating your children, providing for poor, zoning your community, and countless other services that affect your daily life. As Hurricane Sandy has recently reminded many Americans, state and local governments also prepare for and respond to natural disasters.

Not only that, but these elections also have far-reaching political ramifications. I wrote about just such a situation in a 2011 election op-ed:

[I]n 2009, only 21 percent of registered Pennsylvanians cast their ballots. The majority of those select few chose Republican candidate Joan Orie Melvin as the next justice of the PA Supreme Court, solidifying a 4-3 Republican majority on the bench.

 

This year, as in the past, the Supreme Court was called upon to choose the tie-breaking member of the commission that redraws the legislative districts in the state every decade. The resulting map was a patchwork of gerrymandering and political protection submitted on a party-line vote in the Republicans’ favor. By carefully designating which group of voters elects which representative, this map will likely dictate the outcome of Pennsylvania’s elections for years.

And it had the potential to dictate the 2012 presidential election, as well. That year, Pennsylvania Republicans (swept into office in a midterm election) introduced a bill that would have changed the way the Commonwealth distributes its electoral votes for president. Instead of following the “majority wins” system that nearly all other states use, this plan would have split its votes according to Congressional districts that the Republicans themselves drew. To put that into perspective, had this system been in place in 1960, Richard Nixon would have bested John F. Kennedy for the presidency.

Midterm and off-year elections can have huge ramifications. Keep that in mind for 2013, and beyond.

FOOTNOTES

*As an aside, Pennsylvania actually has a “Voter Hall of Fame,” where it recognizes those citizens who have cast their ballots every November for 50 consecutive years or more. If you have not gotten started on that yet, now might be a good time.

FURTHER READING

Michael J. Gaudini, “Corbett-Pileggi election plan bad for democracy,” Main Line Times.

Michael J. Gaudini, “‘Like’ the Vote,” Diniverse Major.

Michael J. Gaudini, “Think Off-Year Elections are Unimportant? Think Again,” Narberth-Bala Cynwyd Patch.

United States Election Project: Voter Turnout,” George Mason University.

Voter Hall of Fame,” Pennsylvania Department of State.

What You Should Know About Redistricting in PA

Every 10 years, a small group of people gathers to redraw the political boundaries of Pennsylvania. This may sound like the stuff conspiracy theories are made of, but it is a very real political procedure. The process is known as redistricting, and it is in motion right now.

The idea for redistricting comes from a fairly simple premise that all Pennsylvanians should be represented equally in the General Assembly and all legislative districts should have about the same population. But populations are not static, and a lot can happen in a decades’ time – people move, have children, and die. Redistricting is supposed to account for these changes.

Historically, the process has been less than transparent. Before 1968, Pennsylvania let the General Assembly redraw district lines, allowing the majority party to split up entire groups of voters, neutralize opponents, and sustain incumbents – an act known as “gerrymandering.”

The term was named after Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who signed off on a plan that manipulated voting districts in favor of his Democratic-Republican Party. That was in 1812, but politicians in the Keystone State have been dabbling in gerrymandering for much longer. More than a century before, three counties colluded to neutralize Philadelphia’s political power via gerrymandering, as documented in Elmer Cummings Griffith’s “The Rise and Development of the Gerrymander.”

Then, in 1968, Pennsylvania redrafted its state constitution, and completely revamped the way it redistricted General Assembly seats. Redistricting duties were given to a special, five-person commission made up of the four minority and majority leaders from the State Senate and State House, and a fifth person of their choosing.

This bipartisan commission was a major reform, but it did not end the gerrymandering debate.

In a 2010 study, software design firm Azavea, sought to measure potential gerrymandering by examining the districts’ shapes. The Pennsylvania constitution requires districts to be “compact and contiguous,” but the courts have found this vague and unenforceable because the law does not establish a clearly defined standard.

So Azavea created an ‘ideal’ standard against which to just the nation’s voting districts for its study. The resulting analysis identified Pennsylvania as “a particularly egregious offender in its State Senate districting” and ranked it fourth worst in the nation for State Senate districts. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives fared a little better, coming in at fifteenth.

Another measure of potential gerrymandering is longevity – how long elected officials end up serving without being voted out of office or retiring. By the next election, the median House representative will have served eight years in the General Assembly. Meanwhile, the median senator (many of whom have also served in the House) will have spent 16 years in the legislature.

Temple University Political Science professor Joseph McLaughlin notes that today’s Pennsylvania legislature is actually fairly young – the result of natural turnover from elections, retirement, and the 2006 bonus scandal.

Some groups think the turnover rates usually seen in General Assembly elections are unnaturally low, and do not want to wait around for the next scandal to turn out incumbents.

The League of Women Voters is one such group. Lora Lavin, its Vice President for Issues, says that lack of competition in gerrymandered districts “discourages public debate on the issues that are important and it can also discourage voter turnout.” After all, if you know who will win before the election is even held, why vote?

The League’s solution: a commission that is completely independent of the legislature. One that, as Lavin describes, “would be prohibited from using data such as party affiliation, voting histories, residences of incumbent legislators, potential challengers, or other persons in drawing the districts,” and that has to draw compact districts.

Still, there are obstacles. One of the largest challenges comes from the Pennsylvania Constitution itself. Because the state constitution lays out the redistricting process, a constitutional amendment is required to change the current system. And amendments must pass through the legislature two years in a row before they can become law.

State Sen. Daylin Leach knows this better than most. The Democratic senator from Montgomery County has introduced redistricting reform in past sessions, and intends to continue pushing to amend the state constitution.

“It’s the single biggest political reform that we need in Pennsylvania and around the country,” Leach says. He believes gerrymandering makes representatives unaccountable, and that it has a “polarizing effect” on politics.

“If you don’t have to worry about losing to the other party in November, there’s no incentive for you, politically, to reach across the aisle,” Leach says, suggesting that many representatives then fail to compromise in order to fend off any potential primary challengers.

Unlike the League of Women Voters, Leach does not want to completely overhaul how General Assembly districts are drawn. He wants to keep the commission in the hands of legislative leaders so that redistricters can be held accountable at the ballot box, but he would also like to foster greater consensus by expanding the commission to include the whips.

Leach thinks his bill’s strongest component is that it “actually creates a mathematical formula for a district to be compact and contiguous.” The formula itself is fairly simple – you draw a circle around a district, and that district must fill in at least 15 percent of the circle.

Still, not everyone believes that such redistricting reform can or should be passed.

Erik Arneson, the Communications and Policy Director for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, notes that “there are a lot of areas of this state where you just cannot draw competitive seats.” He also thinks redistricting is inherently political, and that it is impossible to divorce the two.

Professor McLaughlin echoes these sentiments, and adds that trying to make districts competitive could also have its downsides. He notes that in districts that re-elect incumbents by a large margin “there’s probably more satisfaction among voters with the way the representative votes.”

Either way, McLaughlin sees technology pushing both the commission and government as a whole towards greater transparency.

Arneson says that Sen. Pileggi hopes to use the internet to make this one of the most transparent redistrictings to date, with letters, videos from public hearings, and “everything that people need to be able to draw their own plans” posted online.

No official redistricting website has been launched as of yet.

New ideas aside, the commission has already fallen in line with one historical pattern. It failed to select a chairman in the allotted time, forcing the Supreme Court to choose the fifth member. Their choice: Stephen McEwen, a senior judge on the PA Superior Court. Whether the commission will break from other precedents over the roughly two months’ time it now has to file a preliminary plan has yet to be seen.