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Gerrymandering 101

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By Aaron Kase

Sea creatures make apt images for depicting heavily gerrymandered political districts. Take the Inquirer's description of the late John Murtha's 12th Congressional District as a "a crustacean spread over parts of nine counties " and "a mutant, one-legged lobster with an oversize claw."

In that light, a glace at the Pennsylvania congressional map feels like a trip to the Camden aquarium, with bizarrely shaped blobs sending out claws, tentacles, and eyestalks in every direction. The state Senate and House districts are often just as bad. It's no illusion- software company Azavea confirms that Pennsylvania is the second most gerrymandered state in the nation.

The mangling of our boundaries is a direct result of bald-faced and brazen redistricting done by state leadership for political gain, most recently in 2001. Gerrymandering is among the ugliest of political machinations because there is no plausible explanation for it other than to manipulate the election chances of a particular candidate or party. No politician could ever claim that these Neptunian districts are somehow in the best interests of Pennsylvania residents.

A bi-partisan committee draws the maps for Congress, state Senate, and state House districts every 10 years following the census. However, under current rules the committee is nothing but a puppet of state congressional and legislative leadership. While redistricting is mandated by the Constitution so that districts are divided equally by population to ensure a one person one vote standard, Pennsylvania's forays into gerrymandering have resulted in the opposite: By creating secure districts for incumbents, opposing votes don't really matter. Democracy itself is under attack.

GERRYMANDER.jpgIt doesn't have to be this way. In Iowa, redistricting has been in the hands of a truly independent commission since 1980. As a result, you won't find any crab, squid, or starfish districts on that state's political maps.  Instead, boundaries follow county borders with occasional subdivisions in urban areas to allow for uniform population distribution.

Despite many attempts in Pennsylvania by rank-and-file representatives to follow Iowa's example by advancing legislation to clean up Harrisburg's act, the leadership has ignored all attempts at reform. At least five different bills have been introduced to the General Assembly in the past decade to take the power out of the hands of elected politicians and give it to an independent body, but none of the proposals were ever voted on.

"I dare anyone to vote no if a redistricting bill came up for a vote," says State Senator Lisa Boscola, a Lehigh Valley Democrati who in 2007 introduced SB 346, which would mandate an independent commission to draw up district boundaries and set standards that lines be drawn to match municipal boundaries and not take into account party affiliation of voters. Senate leadership has ignored the bill.

"The bill hasn't gone anywhere. The leaders don't bring it up for a vote." Boscola says. "Rank -and-file members get outraged. They don't ask for this."

Boscola is not giving up on reform. "So many bills take 10 or 20 years to pass. You just keep fighting the good fight."

True reform is no longer possible this census cycle, because to create an independent commission requires a change in the state Constitution which must be passed in two consecutive legislative sessions and then approved in a state-wide vote.

Last year, state Rep. Babette Josephs  of Philadelphia introduced HB 1805, which would create public hearings on redistricting to increase transparency in the process. Transparency might help, but it doesn't go far enough. State leadership has proven itself shameless in the pursuit of political advantage time and time again. There are few consequences for these abuses since a successful gerrymander can secure an incumbent's seat to the point of near-invulnerability.

HB 1805 is still in the House Appropriations Committee, but even if it is voted on and passes this year it doesn't have the teeth to truly reign in gerrymandering. Elected officials should not and can not be allowed to choose their voters if we are to maintain a democracy.

With real reform no longer possible this cycle, we have no choice but to trust our state leadership to make an honest, ethical effort towards a reasonable redistricting next year.

I know, I know. Bad joke.

"Tell twelve year old or thirteen year old, 'Look we have fifty Senate districts, try to draw it so it's fair." They'd do a better job." Boscola says. "Maybe an eight year old."

"It's just ridiculous. It's wrong with a big W and needs to be changed. You need people to go out and fight for the change."

The alternative is to once again be over-run by creatures from the deep when the 2011 district maps come out. Better buy a snorkel and harpoon while there's still time.

 

Aaron Kase is a Philadelphia reporter who writes frequently about government and politics.

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