Disasters in Political Tunnel-Vision: Why Current Redistricting Policy Fails to Address Gerrymandering - By Julia Gyourko

Disasters in Political Tunnel-Vision: Why Current Redistricting Policy Fails to Address Gerrymandering - By Julia Gyourko

         As bitter partisanship and general disrepair in government at both the state and federal levels become the new norm, many citizens have had their voices silenced, suffering under the harsh realities of gerrymandering. Nowhere is this battle more prevalent than in Pennsylvania, whose state legislatures have been waging a continual redistricting war for years. In 2013, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court unanimously approved a redistricting plan first proposed in 2012, in response to changing demographics following the 2010 Census. The new maps redrew both state and federal district lines. With a Republican majority of 110 to 93 in the House and 27 to 23 in the Senate, the plan was implemented with relative ease despite sharp criticism from the left.

         For the Democrats, the map was an abhorrent example of gerrymandering in a state where they already had a disadvantage. Pennsylvania Democrats had toiled for years with their geographic distribution issue, given that democratic voters were generally clumped around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh metro areas with few other blue pockets. Subsequently, the new lines were drawn most heinously in and around these areas. The New York Times referred to Federal District Seven (which formerly contained many Philadelphia suburbs as well as portions of several surrounding counties) as perhaps “the most gerrymandered district in the nation,” jokingly referring to it as “moose-and-antlers-like,” due to the districts numerous connector points spanning only a few blocks long. The foul play was apparent to all parties involved, to the point where the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court acknowledged the maps unfair nature, but noted that “political parties may seek partisan advantage to their proverbial heart’s content, so long as they do so [constitutionally].”

         The new maps first established a virtually unbreakable Republican majority at the state level. The first election cycle following the new lines was 2014, and the effects were felt immediately—with a strengthened Republican majority of 119 to 84 in the House and a 30 to 20 majority in the Senate. By 2016, the damage was increasing, where the majority in the House rose to 121 to 82, and 34 to 16 in the Senate. Contrastingly, the new maps didn’t change the breakdown on the federal level, where Pennsylvania’s congressional representatives remained at a stagnant ratio of 13 Republicans to 5 Democrats from 2012 to 2016.

          However, new momentum in democratic lobbying has reenergized the fair districting debate. The old lines were ruled unconstitutional by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a landmark ruling this past January. Despite intense pushback from Republicans, new maps were subsequently approved by the Court in February of 2018, and they are, according to Aaron Bycoffe of FiveThirtyEight “sure to improve the Democrats’ electoral outlook in the state,” while they simultaneously appear “much closer to matching the political makeup of Pennsylvania’s electorate, which is about evenly divided.” It is, per Cook Political’s David Wasserman, “Democrats’ dreams come true.” And this is precisely the problem.

         Whether or not this new map reflects the political realities of Pennsylvanians more accurately, there is an inevitable winner and loser behind every map. And so long as this is the case, the fair districting fight will continue to be a biting and tiresome political battle. The current map will reach the ripe age of two when the 2020 census is collected—restarting this process all over again. But the root of this problem lies not with the data collection. We should redraw district lines to match with the most current data available to provide a fair voice for everyone in local and federal government. In short, the idea of changing maps often is not an issue—but rather who it is that alters the maps. And currently, that power lies with the legislators themselves.

          According to Fair Districts PA, a political lobbying group devoted to correcting redistricting issues in Pennsylvania, “letting legislators draw their own districts is a conflict of interest,” in that they have “no oversight or standards for fairness” to uphold throughout the process. Additionally, politicians have further opportunity to “draw whatever boundaries [that] will maximize their influence…and keep their seats in office secure.” Thus, the solution that they, along with many like-minded Pennsylvanians, advocate for is to eliminate legislators from the equation. Instead, they propose an independent commission, run by citizens appointed by the PA Secretary of State, who would be transparent, with representatives from the two major parties as well as a few scattered members from fringe parties—much like the makeup of any State House floor. In theory, these citizen commissions would be given data and subsequently be obligated to provide sufficient reasoning behind any new district lines that they create.

          The popular push for redistricting models of this nature stem far beyond grassroots organizations like Fair Districts PA, wherein both Republican State Senator Mike Folmer and Democratic State Senator Lisa Boscola have formerly supported legislation surrounding similar commissions as of March 2018. In a world where the only way to challenge district maps comes in the form of lawsuits, and where no party intends to back down from partisan dogfights to come, perhaps the time is right to remove the politicians from this form of politics.

 Sources:

All Election Statistics Courtesy of Ballotpedia

 Bycoffe, Aaron. “Pennsylvania’s New Map Helps Democrats. But It’s Not A Democratic Gerrymander.” FiveThirtyEight, 20 Feb. 2018, fivethirtyeight.com/features/pennsylvanias-new-map-helps-democrats-but-its-not-a-democratic-gerrymander/.

 Cohn, Nate, et al. “The New Pennsylvania Congressional Map, District by District.” The New York Times, 19 Feb. 2018, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/02/19/upshot/pennsylvania-new-house-districts-gerrymandering.html.

 Fair Distrctis PA. “The Problem.” Fair Districts PA, 2018, www.fairdistrictspa.com/the-problem.

 Gibson, Keegan. “Breaking: Supreme Court Upholds New Pa. House & Senate Lines.”Politics PA, 8 May 2018, www.politicspa.com/breaking-supreme-court-upholds-new-pa-house-senate-lines/47874/.

 Lemery, Dave. “With Eyes toward 2020 Census, Pennsylvania Lawmakers Look to Reshape Redistricting Process.” Pennsylvania Watchdog, Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, 29 Mar. 2018, www.watchdog.org/pennsylvania/with-eyes-toward-census-pennsylvania-lawmakers-look-to-reshape-redistricting/article_4dd1d192-336e-11e8-8cc3-5b77ed85adb3.html.

Prokop, Andrew. “What Pennsylvania’s New Congressional Map Means for 2018.” Vox, 19 Mar. 2018, www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/2/21/17032936/pennsylvania-congressional-districts-2018.

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