Crowd in Mt. Lebanon hears about gerrymandering
They say it looks like Goofy kicking Donald Duck.
Disney characters or not, critics of gerrymandering have an easy target when referencing Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, a Rorschach test of a configuration winding its way through suburban Philadelphia.
An advocate for Fair Districts PA, a relatively new nonpartisan organization seeking to eliminate such mutations of partisan politics, drew an overcapacity crowd March 16 at Mt. Lebanon Public Library to address the topic. In fact, a couple dozen relative latecomers were asked to leave so as not to violate fire code, with the promise of another session to accommodate them in the future.
That type of scenario has become the norm for her group’s presentations, according to speaker Sue Broughton.
“The crowd is generally about three times the size the organization giving it would have expected,” the Franklin Park resident said. “It’s a good thing. There’s a huge amount of interest.”
A particular point of interest is why a state with comparable numbers between the two major parties in terms of registered voters has 13 Republicans and five Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“That doesn’t impress me as something that represents the people of Pennsylvania in a way that is accurate,” Broughton observed.
The U.S. Constitution calls for states to redistrict every 10 years to reflect population shifts, but does not provide specific guidelines.
“In Pennsylvania, it seems to be that the easiest way to do it is to just pass a bill through the Legislature by the regular legislative process,” Broughton explained. “So the party in power draws up some maps the way they want it. They attach it to a bill. They pass the bill through the Legislature. And if the governor is of the same party, it gets signed easily.”
Meanwhile, states also are subject to reapportionment of available seats in the U.S. House, and the number of corresponding congressional districts continues to drop in Pennsylvania: 21 following the 1990 census and 19 after 2000 to the current 18.
The subsequent drawing of a new map leads to situations like District 7 or, closer to home, District 12.
Long held by the late Johnstown Democrat John Murtha, District 12 ended up stretching west into Washington and Greene counties post-2000, while sitting Rep. Frank Mascara’s district was eliminated. Murtha won the primary, meaning one fewer Pennsylvania Democrat in the House.
Drawing the map for the Pennsylvania Legislature – 50 Senate and 203 House districts – is subject to a completely different process. The majority and minority leaders of each body are joined by a fifth person, usually appointed by the state Supreme Court, to arrive at a decision.
“The district should be composed of compact and contiguous territory, and unless absolutely necessary, no county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward shall be divided,” according to the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Arguing that the provision was being violated, Lehigh County resident Amanda Holt led a court case challenging the redistricting process in the last cycle. The Supreme Court agreed, but the “remedy” was to have the same committee work on the map once more.
“Well, by this time, it’s 2013,” Broughton recalled. “They’ve already had to use the old districts for one legislative election, in 2012. The 2014 elections are looming on the horizon. And the Supreme Court just threw up their hands and said, ‘It’s OK.’ So they let those stand.”
She stressed that gerrymandering, drawing district boundaries to benefit a party or candidate, occurs among both Democrats and Republicans.
“Either party that gains the upper hand in a state legislature is going to do this,” she said. “As long as we have politicians doing the redistricting, we’re going to get things like this.”
Fair Districts PA started in 2016 as a project of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, and the organization advocates creation of an independent redistricting commission to provide a more fair, transparent redistricting process.
“If I didn’t think there was a chance,” Broughton said, “I wouldn’t be standing here.”
For more information about Fair Districts PA, visit www.fairdistrictspa.com.