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North Hills Monthly

What is Gerrymandering and Why is it so Important?

Jun 30, 2019 11:48AM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Fair Districts PA hosted a "gerry meander" walk to bring attention to gerrymandering in Pennsylvania.

Gerrymandering is the process by which political boundaries are manipulated to create unfair advantages to one political party and disadvantages to another. The League of Women Voters, among other organizations, has been working on the problem of redistricting for a long time.

We spoke with Suzanne Broughton, an educator and speaker with Fair Districts PA (FDPA) who has been associated with the League of Women Voters for close to 50 years and is a long-time president of the local league. She has also served on the League of Women Voters’ state board. 

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is Fair Districts PA, and what is its mission?

Suzanne Broughton (Broughton): FDPA is a nonpartisan, citizen-led statewide coalition working to create a process for redistricting that is transparent, impartial and fair.

NHM: Why do we need this organization?

Broughton: Our politicians, by more than one method, revise the districts so that they benefit from them; they maintain their power. Perhaps an analogy might help:  In football, the scheduling of the season, who plays what games, where they play, is done by the NFL; not by any particular team, but by a neutral authority.

Suppose they decided that the team that won the Superbowl would schedule the next season? How would that work out?

In our country, we do a census every 10 years, and that census produces numbers that show how the population has shifted. Nationally, the population has been shifting from the Northeast to the Southwest and to some extent to the Northwest. Once the census is complete, the number of congressional districts is reapportioned among the states to make them of as equal population as possible.

After the 2000 census, Pennsylvania lost two congressional districts—we had 21 and went to 19. After the 2010 census, we lost another district, so now we have 18. The expectation is that we may lose another district after the 2020 census.

When the number of districts changes, obviously you have to redraw the lines. But if population shifts within the state, you probably still have to redraw. We know that western Pennsylvania has been losing population for several decades.

Redistricting happens in the year ending in one (for example, 2021). How that redistricting is done doesn’t just determine the probable outcome of elections in the next year, but for the next decade.

NHM: What is the actual definition of gerrymandering?

Broughton: Gerrymandering is nothing new—it goes back to 1812, when the governor of Massachusetts, named Eldridge Gerry, approved a district for their state legislature. A Boston cartoonist said it looked like a salamander, strung out in a loop, and called the process gerrymandering. That name has stuck for more than 200 years.

Redistricting has to happen; it can be done well or poorly. Gerrymandering is a system of doing redistricting that is done poorly and produces unfair districts.

NHM: When it occurs, who is doing the gerrymandering?

Broughton: We don’t do anything simply in Pennsylvania—the process for redistricting for Congress is different than the process for redistricting for the state legislature. However it is all done at the state level. Our congressional representatives do not have any say in how the districts are drawn except as they influence their party people.

For Congress, the party that controls the state legislature draws the maps the way they want them to be and attaches maps to an ordinary bill and sends it through the state legislature to the governor. In 2010, that was a slam-dunk because the same party controlled both houses and the governor’s office.

For the state legislature, it’s different because the state’s constitution mandates a process for redistricting the state legislature. The governor has no influence at all. There is a five-person commission consisting of the majority and minority leaders of both houses of the legislature: two Democrats and two Republicans. Those four are to select a fifth non-legislator person to be the chair. In fact, they never manage to agree on that person, so the state constitution provides a backup. If they can’t agree, the state supreme court will select that person.

NHM: What conflicts can arise when legislators are responsible for redistricting?

Broughton: There are several ways to gerrymander.

‘Packing’ is lumping a community together to concentrate and isolate its influence—putting people artificially together so that they’re isolated and don’t influence the surrounding districts.

‘Cracking’ is dividing the community to reduce its influence; taking a bunch of people who are not alike and putting them into one district.

Then, when you draw a district that is not very compact but is deliberately set up to create a primary fight between two sitting legislators of the same party, which was done twice in western Pennsylvania’s former Congressional District 12, it is called ‘highjacking.’

NHM: Why is it a hot button issue now?

Broughton: One reason is the rise of the use of computers. Computers give you very accurate computer mapping tools and give us data mining in a way that we never had before. We all leave trails on the Internet—lots of data that can tell mappers a bit about who you are and how you’re likely to vote. Combining mapping and data mining has made it much easier to draw much more precise districts. Another reason is that some citizens' groups have recently made it an issue.

NHM: Who can be harmed when gerrymandering occurs, and who can benefit?

Broughton: Everybody is harmed because if you artificially rig the districts so that one party maintains control without any competition, you create a bunch of safe districts for one party. They are the majority and there is little back-and-forth communication. No compromise. No discussion in the legislature. The party that has rigged it has all the power simply does what it wants; their agenda is what is considered, and no one else has much of a voice. 

Legislators in the majority party who haven’t risen to leadership don’t have a lot of say either. It puts most power in the hands of the leadership who gains power by saying to other legislators from their party: if you don’t vote the way I want you to on various bills, we’ll find you a primary challenger in the next election.

NHM: Is gerrymandering legal?

Broughton: It’s not the process of gerrymandering that is illegal but in some cases, the results are illegal. The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and 18 individuals, each in one of the 18 congressional districts, filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania after the 2016 election. The Pennsylvania constitution has a couple of sections in which it essentially says no person/no group shall be discriminated against because of their beliefs. Some creative lawyer said Democrats believe differently than Republicans, so gerrymandering discriminated against Democrats because of their beliefs. The plaintiffs won, forcing the redrawing of the districts for the 2018 and 2020 elections.

But that lawsuit only solved half the problem temporarily. Half, because it did not change the districts in the state legislature; temporarily, because in 2021, redistricting will be done again, and if we do not change the methods, the districts will again be gerrymandered.

NHM: Why do we need redistricting reform here in PA?

Broughton: We need to take the process out of the hands of the politicians who benefit from it, just as we wouldn’t let the New England Patriots schedule the football season. Fair Districts PA recommends establishing an independent commission of voters who are not politicians to do the redistricting and supports House Bills 22 and 23 to accomplish that.

NHM: What is the main thing that the public needs to know about gerrymandering?

Broughton: Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania essentially cuts voters out of the voting process. It creates districts where voters have little or no choice. We think that voters should select their representatives; representatives should not select their voters.

To learn more, visit https://www.fairdistrictspa.com.