Gerrymandering is one of the most important problems facing Pennsylvanians today. We’ll look at what it is, how it occurs, and why it is a problem. This post will be broken up into the following sections:
- Electoral Districts and Redistricting
- What is Gerrymandering?
- What are Some of Gerrymandering’s Effects?
- How Do We Redistrict in Pennsylvania?
- The Way Forward
–ELECTORAL DISTRICTS AND REDISTRICTING –
In order to understand what gerrymandering is, you first have to understand redistricting.
As you know, Americans live in a representative democracy (also known as a democratic republic). That is, we elect people to represent us at various levels of government. We elect mayors, presidents, congressmen, senators, etc… In Pennsylvania, we elect everyone from the governor and PA Supreme Court justices on down to the local coroner. We march into our polling place on election day and cast our ballots. But how do we know which candidates will appear on which ballots?
Some offices (like governor) are elected statewide, which means the candidates appear on every ballot in the state. Some (like mayors) are elected only in their own municipality. One office (president) is elected country-wide.
But for our purposes, let’s focus on U.S. senate elections. Every state gets two senators, no matter the size. California, with 37,253,956 people has the same number of U.S. senators as Wyoming, with 563,626. Because the number of representatives is not proportional to the representative’s population (A U.S. senator from California represents more people than one from Wyoming), this is known as non-proportional representation. This system was put into place during the Constitutional Convention because small states were worried that their votes would be meaningless if the big states had more representatives.
But, as you know, the U.S. Congress (which makes federal laws) has two houses, the Senate being the upper house. The lower house, the House of Representatives, is elected on the basis of proportional representation. This means that each state is given a number of congressional seats based on how big or small their populations are — the bigger the state, the more representatives. And the states divided these seats up proportionally, so that each congressman represents roughly the same amount of people.
This is where electoral districts come in. In the next election, Pennsylvania will have 18 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Those 18 people will have to each represent roughly the same number of people. In order to account for this, we draw electoral districts. Electoral districts are political boundaries that define who represents you.
But, since populations are always changing — people are born, die, and move all the time — that means electoral districts’ compositions are always changing. And by the end of a decade, two districts that were once the same size could suddenly be very different. So, every ten years, we redraw the districts, to keep the sizes equal and the representation fair. The process by which these districts are redrawn is known as redistricting.
–WHAT IS GERRYMANDERING?–
Unfortunately, politicians since the founding of the country have taken this noble goal of proportional representation and used it for their own means. Gerrymandering is the result. Essentially, gerrymandering occurs when the people redrawing the district lines do so with ulterior motives.
Back in the day, a lot of gerrymandering was racial. Politicians would draw lines that split up minority populations into different voting districts, so that none of them would be represented. Say, for instance, that an outspoken racist had a lot of minority voters in his district. Those voters could pose problems for his re-election. So, when redistricting came around, the lines would be redrawn to divide the minority population into several districts — and also to include people in his district that he knew would vote for him. With less minority voters in his electorate (and more supporters), his re-election was assured.
Though the courts have ruled racial gerrymandering unconstitutional, they have found no workable standard for political gerrymandering, where groups are split up or put together based on voter registration figures. People that redraw political lines use information on how many Republicans or Democrats are in an area to decide where the lines will be drawn. Clever redistricting allows those in charge of the process to consolidate power, reward friends, punish foes, and escape accountability. They are allowed to pick their constituents, instead of their constituents picking them.
Political gerrymandering has a long and storied history in the United States. The term “gerrymandering” itself comes from Massachusetts Governor and Founding Father Elbridge Gerry, who signed off on a redistricting map that the opposition said looked like a salamander, or (once they combined it with the governor’s name) a “gerrymander.”
–WHAT ARE SOME OF GERRYMANDERING’S EFFECTS?–
Gerrymandering has many effects. First, it undermines democracy. Democracy is based on representative government and accountability. Both of these are subverted if a handful of people are able to redraw the lines in such a way that designs districts with the specific purpose of isolating the opposition. Imagine a district that is 50% Democrats and 50% Republicans, and all around it is surrounded by areas that are 75% Democratic. With a little maneuvering, the Democrats can split the Republicans in that 50-50 district, putting some in one district, some in another until voila! Suddenly, the Democrats have a commanding lead in every district. And the Republicans can do the same thing in the places where they control the process.
Under these circumstances, pretty much everyone knows who is going to win in the general election. The seat is safe. In the words of Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.” Nothing short of a full-blown scandal or major misstep will unseat them. And when voters already know the outcome of an election before it is even held, there is little reason to turn up at the polls. Decreased voter turnout is another vicious effect of gerrymandering. Where’s the democracy or accountability in that?
Furthermore, when an electoral challenge comes, it won’t be in the general election. The opposition doesn’t have enough votes to launch a credible challenge. Under these circumstances, a challenge normally comes from within the incumbent’s party. A Republican, for example, challenging a fellow Republican in the primary.
Voters in primary elections are often (though not always) more partisan or ideological purists. Fending off a primary challenge means an incumbent will pander to his base and take extremist positions on issues instead of cooperating and compromising. That is another effect of gerrymandering: creating a dysfunctional atmosphere of polarization and partisanship.
Gerrymandering also allows political powerbrokers to punish enemies and reward friends. For instance, an annoying legislator can have his district eliminated or merged with another, nearby district in the hopes that he will lose the next election battle against a fellow incumbent. Potential challengers can likewise be redrawn out of districts, in order to reward loyalty with a safe seat.
In the first round of 2011′s PA General Assembly redistricting, State Sen. Piccola’s (R-15) seat was kept safe from an angry electorate. Piccola had sponsored a controversial plan for the state to take over the city of Harrisburg. Piccola represented part of Harrisburg and many of his constituents were unhappy with this legislation. After the preliminary redistricting plan was put forth, Piccola’s new district conveniently lost its Harrisburg bits, insulating the legislator. As an aside, Piccola later announced his retirement anyway, and the map was changed accordingly.
This type of chicanery makes legislators beholden not to their constituents, but to those people drawing the political boundaries.
–HOW DO WE REDISTRICT IN PENNSYLVANIA?–
The PA Constitution lays out the process for redistricting of PA General Assembly (the body that makes state laws) seats. In 1968, Pennsylvania drafted a new constitution and made a major reform to how it redistricts. Before 1968, the General Assembly simply passed a plan as it would any other bill — by a majority vote. This meant that the party that controlled the majority seats in the General Assembly and the Governorship got to pass whatever plan they wanted, no questions asked.
This is how Pennsylvania’s U.S. House of Representatives seats are still redistricted today. The PA General Assembly’s own seats, however, are redistricted through a different process.
After 1968, the PA Constitution provided that a commission composed of the four majority and minority leaders from the PA Senate and PA House of Representatives, and a fifth person of their choosing, would produce the plan. This ensured that both Republicans and Democrats would have a say, and a supposedly neutral chairman of their choosing would break ties. In the event that the four could not mutually choose a chairman, the PA Supreme Court would decide. This has turned out to be the general rule, rather than the exception.
However, this process still results in gerrymandering. Sometimes, as in 2011, the chairman has generally favored one party’s demands over another’s, allowing that party to dominate the process. Yet, even when the chairman is supposedly neutral, the other four members still have a vested interest in maintaining political power, and the result is a bipartisan gerrymander that protects their incumbents.
–THE WAY FORWARD–
There are ways to minimize the dangers of gerrymandering. Other states use independent commissions, comprised of citizens not holding any elected office, to redraw political boundaries. These commissions can be barred, by law, from using political considerations (like voter registration figures) when drawing districts. With specific prohibitions on such practices, the courts would have an easier time striking down blatantly political maps.
Maps could also be judged by contiguousness and compactness formulas that are designed to make preempt the creative drawing that often signals rampant gerrymandering. Such a formula was included in State Sen. Daylin Leach’s redistricting reform proposal for Pennsylvania in 2009. Essentially, it would have mandated that if a circle were drawn around a district, that district would have to fill at least 15 percent of the circle.
Finally, advances in technology are continually providing us with more tools of transparency and accountability, and it is conceivable that the redistricting process could be undertaken by a computer algorithm, and signed off on by an independent, or other appointed or elected, commission (with no powers to amend, only to approve or reject).
At the very least,Pennsylvania’s U.S. House of Representatives seats should be likewise placed in the commission’s hands, rather than allowing it to go through the General Assembly on a party-line vote in which the majority dominates the minority party. And proposals to expand the commission to 7 members instead of 5 would nullify the chairman’s ability to tip the balance of power, forcing more compromise — though it would not adequately address the issue of bipartisan gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is one of the most important political issues of our day — but it is complicated and unglamorous. The blatantly gerrymandered maps that are turned out every decade are an indication that those who draw the boundaries know the electorate cares very little about the issue. They do not even try to hide the fact that they are engineering these maps in a way that benefits their political parties and ambitions.
Reform will come only from one place: the grassroots. That makes educating the public about gerrymandering and its effects that much more important. Our democracy depends on it.