Last week, a bipartisan bicameral group of Pennsylvania lawmakers joined for a press conference to announce the formation of a working group seeking to draft and pass comprehensive redistricting legislation. Led by Senator Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton), the group aims to empower representative government by reforming a mechanism that has led to the system becoming “politically tainted, polarized, and gridlocked.” The current redistricting framework creates districts that heavily favor one party over the other in districts throughout the state, often forcing lawmakers to hold fast to party politics if they wish to be elected or have their favored legislation move. This has drastically reduced the number of bipartisan initiatives, compromises, and cross-the-aisle voting. Pennsylvania has one of the most gerrymandered congressional maps in the country. A Penn State study showed that members of Congress are seven times less likely to vote across party lines than they were just a few decades ago. In the 112th Congress, 98.3% of all cross-votes came from 7 of the Congress’s 435 members, and many feel that gerrymandering practices are to blame.
Among the attendees of the conference of this bipartisan working group was Common Cause’s own Barry Kauffman, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania state organization. Kauffman heartily thanked the legislators working on improving the government, and highlighted the work that Common Cause had already been doing in the area. Since 1980, Common Cause/PA has been campaigning to improve the redistricting system in Pennsylvania, and discussed how rewarding it is to see more and more scholars and campaign operatives acknowledging the threat that gerrymandering poses to representative democracy. Kauffman listed the manifold dangers of gerrymandering, including destroying competitive elections, giving too much weight to polarizing primaries, fracturing community cohesion, and crippling compromise. The ultimate problem, argued Kauffman, is that this system allows politicians to pick their voters instead of voters picking their politicians. Kauffman reemphasized Common Cause’s pledge to work with this bipartisan group to put in place a voter-oriented system by 2021, when the district maps are redrawn. Additionally, Kauffman discussed bringing in of other organizations in Common Cause’s partner coalition to help add more expertise, creativity, and passion to the effort.
In an effort to showcase the problem of gerrymandering, the Washington Post sponsors a contest called “Name That District,” in which readers are encouraged to come up with clever names for the often ridiculous, amorphous blobs that districts are shaped in as a result of partisan trickery. Submissions for districts across the country have included such gems as “laughing girl and nun,” “sitting deer kicks howling dog,” and “hippo.” For Pennsylvania’s 7th district, which looks like this, the winning submission was “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.”
Districts that depict graphic Disney-on-Disney violence are the result of Pennsylvania’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission, the body that sets the boundaries for legislative districts. This body includes the House and Senate Majority and Minority leaders, along with an appointed fifth member. This commission puts powerful politicians in charge of drawing the districts that determine their own chances of getting elected or re-elected, as well as how their parties will fare in upcoming elections, creating a severe conflict of interest in which fairness and equity are pitted against self-preservation.
Pennsylvania’s redistricting process is among the least equitable in the country, and many feel that basic redistricting tenants like contiguity and compactness are entirely ignored by this system. The formation of this working group, which has made clear that its purpose is to decide what to do about gerrymandering, not whether to do something about gerrymandering, should help unclog a system that is impairing democracy. Moreover, the push by some lawmakers for a state constitutional amendment would galvanize the movement to put an end to partisan gerrymandering. The ultimate goal of this working group should be to end the incentives that encourage politicians to engage in this kind of behavior, as, in the words of writer Kevin Bleyer, “no one likes gerrymandering, except those doing the gerrymandering.”