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.