Ben Chanenson and Ethan Lee
America prides itself on being the world’s leading democracy. It is the government “of the people, for the people.” Here, the citizens supposedly hold the future of the nation in their hands on Election Day. Voting is so important to Americans that there have been six amendments to the Constitution designed to protect and improve the right to vote. But it is all smoke and mirrors. Frankly, your vote often means nothing. The reason is simple: Gerrymandering. Politicians shove you into a congressional district full of likeminded people to nullify the impact of your vote. As a result, there are many districts where it functionally does not matter how you vote or even if you vote. The election will be uncompetitive, and the result essentially predetermined. As, Dr. Jeremy Mayer said, “It is as if the politicians choose their voters instead of the voters choosing their politician.”
To fully understand the nature and result of Gerrymandering, you must first consider its history.
The word Gerrymandering was created in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts senate districts, under Governor Elbridge Gerry. Over 200 years ago, in 1812 Governor Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. When mapped one of the districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a salamander. Gerrymandering is a blend of the governor’s name and the word salamander.
What is Gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering is “drawing political boundaries to give your party a numeric advantage over an opposing party” (Washington Post). The objective is to create districts that lean to one party. The party that is Gerrymandering tries to create a couple of districts that is almost entirely made up of the other party. The opposition will win those, but that is all part of the plan. Next they draw districts that are a majority of their supporters, with a lesser amount of opposition. As a result you give your opponents a small number of safe seats, while creating a larger number of seats that are not as safe, but that you win easily. If done properly the primaries become the real election, because the winner of the more numerous party’s primary is almost certain to win. This process thus makes the election uncompetitive and forces candidates to be more radical to attract their base instead of moderate to attract independents.
Where does Gerrymandering live?
This tactic is prevalent everywhere and used by both parties. In Maryland, the Democrats draw unfair lines and in North Carolina, the Republicans returned the favor. It’s next to impossible to find a state free from Gerrymandering. And our home of Pennsylvania is not immune.
We are called the Keystone State, but maybe we should be called the Gerrymandering State. The situation is so bad in PA that one paper called the state The Gerrymander of the decade. And a different paper, the Washington Post, called us the third worst state, only behind Maryland and North Carolina.
It was not always this way though. Our plummet to the dark side took a gigantic jump in the 2000 election. Leading up to the election, the State House of Representatives was in a stalemate. There were 100 members of each party with three openings. But after the people of PA cast their votes the Republicans had 104 seats and the Democratic held only 99. That small shift would alter the course of the PA government. That is so because Republicans also had a majority in the state senate (30 to 20) and the Governor took up the shield of the elephant.
Having control of both chambers of the legislature and the executive branch allowed Republicans to dictate the redistricting process (Gerrymander). The process is conducted every 10 years following the Census. The requirements of the districts are the following.
- They have to have approximately equal populations
- Discrimination based on race or ethnicity is prohibited
- The districts are supposed to be compact, so “residents have some sort of cultural cohesion in common” (Supreme Court)
- Account for political boundaries (county, city, town, and township boundaries etc.) “unless absolutely necessary.” [Pa. Const. art. II, § 16]
- Have contiguity, that means be “physically adjacent” (BallotPedia.org)
With those requirements in mind the legislators determine the districts, but sadly it gets more complicated. Since 1968 a politician commission draws the lines. The commission is made up of five members. The majority leaders in the House and Senate each appoint one person. And the minority leaders each appoint one as well. So, to break the inevitable tie, the fifth member is supposed to be appointed by the other four members. However, if the commission cannot come to an agreement, the State Supreme Court appoints someone. And – you guessed it – the Supreme Court was controlled by the Republicans.
The first map created by the Republicans was challenged in state and federal court. The state court upheld the map, rejecting claims of partisan Gerrymandering. Nonetheless, the plan was defeated in federal court on April 8, 2002. The grounds for the rejection were an equal population violation.
Undeterred, the legislature passed a new plan later that spring. That plan was also challenged in federal court, but this time it was upheld. Then the court case made its way up to the Supreme Court of the United States. In Vieth v. Jubelirer, the Supreme Court of the United States approved the Republican-designed maps. The plaintiff, a registered Democrat claimed that the Republican national party pressured the PA legislature to draw partisan lines “as a punitive measure against Democrats for having enacted pro-Democratic redistricting plans elsewhere” and to help the party in congressional elections in Pennsylvania. The court rejected this claim because there was no clear and controllable standard for “adjudicating political gerrymandering claims.”
As a result of the 2000 census, Pennsylvania lost two congressional districts. The 20th and 21st were no more. So the Gerrymandering Republicans moved Republican Rep. Phil English (formerly of the 21st congressional district) to the redistricted 3rd congressional district. He won reelection. Democratic Rep. Frank Mascara (formerly of the 20th) was redistricted to the heavily Republican 18th congressional district. He sensed the trap, so he moved to but still lost in the 12th congressional district to a fellow Democratic incumbent. Dr. Mayer calls what happened to Mascara “scorpions in a bottle.” The choice for Mascara was either move to a new district, away from his old supporters, or fight to the death with another established member of his own party. He chose the latter. There were changes to other districts, but those representatives keep their seats or retired.
Deja Vu All Over Again (Yogi Berra)
The Democrats largely defeated the Republicans in the 2006 election, but lost when it really counted again. The Republicans won a landslide victory in the 2010 election, retaking control of both parts of the legislature and the governorship. This was in addition to their continued control over the State Supreme Court. So, they got a chance for the second decade in a row to draw the districts.
This time, the map placed Democratic Reps. Jason Altmire and Mark Critz into the same district. Thus giving them the same “scorpions in a bottle” treatment as Mascara. This map also put six Republicans into safer districts. Court challenges were made again and they failed again. Angry Democrats and Independents took to the court of public opinion to voice their displeasure. Barry Kauffman, a lobbyist for Common Cause of Pennsylvania, said the plan “is a clear-cut case of politicians picking their voters in order to prevent voters from having a meaningful opportunity to pick their elected officials.” Pennsylvania Democratic Chairman Jim Burns said in a press release, “The Republicans have proposed a map far more partisan and gerrymandered than anyone would have guessed, a map that they will now force into law without any public input.”
Do not think this Gerrymandering is black and white. 36 Democrats voted for the map and 8 Republicans voted against it. It can benefit individuals on both sides. The Gerrymandering was uber-successful in 2010 just look at the results of the 2014 election.
Democratic candidates received 44 percent of the vote, yet Democratic candidates won only 5 House seats out of 18.
The effects of 20 years of Gerrymandering are catastrophic. Imagine what 30 years of Republican gerrymandering will look like. Or potentially worse yet, what would happen if the Democrats gain power and retaliate for the last 20 years? PA needs to follow the path of California and delegate the responsibilities of creating districts to an independent committee. The current partisan gerrymandering often renders our general election votes nearly meaningless. We need to end this evil before it hurts our sacred system any more.
Bonus Section; What to call it?
It is so obvious that our district (PA-7) was gerrymandered that the Washington Post held a naming contest. The winner suggested that it looked like Goofy kicking Donald Duck and it does.
The 7th congressional district looks this way because in 2010 it was given part of Montgomery County to boost the Republican stranglehold on the district. That boosted incumbent Rep. Pat Meehan because he was able to get rid of some Democratic leaning suburbs like the City of Chester and the Borough of Swarthmore, handing them to the Philadelphia-centers 1st congressional district, a seat long held by Philly’s powerful Rep. Bob Brady. Additionally, part of Amish Country was added so that the numbers fit.
Above is another suggestion made in the contest, Benjamin Franklin kicking New Jersey.
North Carolina’s 12th congressional district is the worst of the worst.
Below is the only other district that the Washington Post declared to be worse than ours. Courtesy of Maryland, John Sarbanes 3rd congressional district – “The Praying Mantis.”