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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.

 

Subverting Democracy: A Primer on Gerrymandering

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
  • Conclusion

–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.

–CONCLUSION–

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.


Gerrymandering Undermines Democracy in PA

(Also published in the Main Line Times on November 10, 2011)

The preliminary results from one of the decade’s most important elections are in, and the Republicans have won big. Pennsylvania looks like it will likely have a safe GOP majority in the General Assembly for the next couple elections, at least – an impressive feat given they only got 3 votes. I am referring, of course, to the redistricting plan that passed 3-2 out of the Reapportionment Committee on Monday.

The choice of the term ‘election’ to describe redistricting may, at first, appear odd. But if you consider the implications of the committee’s plan, it emerges as the most accurate description. In short, the majority has signed off on a plan that twists electoral districts into imaginative shapes that cannibalize communities and guarantee incumbent protection. By carefully carving sections of the state that tend to vote for one party or the other, they have created a patchwork quilt of districts that will likely not see a competitive General Assembly election again for years.

Essentially, Republican leaders have just elected themselves several more terms as the majority party.

This issue – known as ‘gerrymandering’ – should be a top priority for Pennsylvania voters. Uncompetitive general elections undermine accountability. The most blatant example of this is Sen. Piccola’s new district, which would remove the sections of Harrisburg he currently represents. Clearly, this is just an unexpected perk for Piccola, given the Harrisburg takeover bill he recently sponsored.

But unaccountability functions in subtler ways as well. Certain re-election removes incentives to serve voters’ interests. After all, General Assembly leaders are the ones that assure a legislator’s re-election. Greater political polarization also occurs as uncompetitive elections remove the incentive to reach across the aisle and curry favor with moderate, swing voters.

As former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards once said: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”

The solution is clear: Pennsylvania needs a redistricting system with clearer rules forbidding the use of political information in its design. Districts should be compact and contiguous, not divided or shoved inside other districts. And they should be drawn up by a non-partisan committee, not by party leaders with a vested interest in their own political survival.

Such plans have been put forth in the past, but failed to become law, largely due to public disinterest. It is too late now to salvage the 2011 redistricting process, but Pennsylvanians should still pressure their legislators to produce fairer redistricting practices by the decade’s end – our democracy depends on it.


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.