The Destructive Art of Gerrymandering

Tegan Kelsall, Guest Writer

Our nation was founded upon the principle that government is of the people, by the people, for the people. The way this is possible is by giving every citizen the right to vote. Seems simple right? But what if your vote matters less than other peoples, just because of where you live? This is the case for millions of voters in the United States. The reason is gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is manipulating the boundaries of wards and voting districts to favor one party or class. 

The way districts are drawn decides who will win elections. Having fair districts that represent the voters living in them is fundamental to a functioning democracy. Now you might be asking who draws the lines that create the voting districts? In Pennsylvania the General Assembly controls the redistricting process. This results in elected officials choosing their voters instead of the voters choosing their elected official. This is an obvious conflict of interest and leads to gerrymandering. 

The picture below is an example of how gerrymandering can alter the votes from blue winning to grey winning. By moving the black lines, the precincts are divided into different districts. Depending on which color is a majority will determine which color wins. Another name for what is occurring in the picture is ‘cracking and packing’. ‘Cracking’ is spreading voters of a particular type among many districts. This increases those voters’ influence among other districts. Politicians use cracking when they are an incumbent and want to keep their power. Packing is drawing the district lines so that many voters of a certain type are in one district. This reduces their power and influence. 

The image on the left provides an example of a representative district that reflects state voter data. This district will have the most competitive elections compared to the other two districts. 

The center district favors grey as the blue wards are packed together therefore decreasing the power blue has. The rightmost district is set up to have very uncompetitive elections. The result from the right district would be blue having two seats and grey having one which is proportional to the voter data.

Gerrymandering in PA

Perhaps you’ve heard about Pennsylvania having issues with gerrymandering. The pictures below tell part of the story. 

Pennsylvania’s former 7th congressional district looks like Goofy kicking Donald Duck.
5th congressional district- PA State Rep: Mary Gay Scanlon

However, you will soon learn that the problems are worse than you think. 

Here are some reasons why gerrymandering is so prominent throughout Pennsylvania. 

  • Lack of rules and regulations. 

In Pennsylvania, the redistricting process puts power in the hands of a few leaders, with no checks and balances. This lets leaders draw district lines to decide elections before the votes are cast. There are vague rules about redistricting that can be interpreted based on what is of the interest of the politician. 

  1. Pennsylvania is a swing state so whatever happens in our state has a big impact in Congress. It is in politicians interest to win in Pennsylvania which can lead to heavily gerrymandered districts. 
  2. Advancements in data and mapping technology have made it easy for politicians to precisely choose who they want in their voting district. All of this combined can result in heavily gerrymandered districts like the ones below. 


There are only three state based requirements about redistricting. The three rules say that the districts must be contiguous, compact, and have an equal population. Continuity means that all areas within a district should be physically adjacent. Compactness refers to the fact that a district’s constituents should live as close to each other as possible. All districts should have as close to an equal population as possible to ensure that everyone has an equal representation with their vote.

To give you an idea of the effect gerrymandering can have in elections, the distortion in Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvanias maps have collectively resulted in ten extra Republican seats in each of the three elections since the 2011 redistricting. Also, in 2016, state Democrats cast 46% of votes yet only 28% of Congressional seats were won by Democrats. This is not to say that only Republicans are guilty of gerrymandering. Both Democrats and Republicans have a history of drawing district lines that favor their voters. On the other hand, Maryland is gerrymandered in favor of Democrats.


Impacting gerrymandering

Gerrymandering protects incumbents and diminishes the power of people’s vote. This means that politicians in safe seats do not need to be responsive to all voters.They only need to please their party’s activists during the primary elections. Winning the primary election means candidates will secure a seat in the general election. As a result, issues that voters care about are not being addressed in Harrisburg. For example, 75% of Pennsylvanians support expanded access to pre-K, but the legislature hasn’t taken any steps to act on it. 

You can join others in making a change by going to Draw the Lines PA. There you can design your own map thats fair to ensure that our elected officials are accountable to all voters.

At Fair Districts PA, you can sign petitions and write to lawmakers demanding that the redistricting process is fair, open and powered by Pennsylvanians.There are many activities that range from minutes to days of time commitment so you can be assured that there is something built for you!

 Another great resource is People Powered Maps. It is a national redistricting program of the League of Women Voters focusing on creating fair political maps nationwide. On this website you will find a lot of information on redistricting. This great resource can help you learn more about how redistricting affects certain groups and communities.