Many Pennsylvania voters are concerned about gerrymandering and want to work towards fair voting districts. Dan Loeb, publisher of The Philadelphia Jewish Voice, gave a lecture on gerrymandering to an overflow crowd at the Ludington Library in Bryn Mawr. After all the seats were filled, dozens more people sat on the floor or stood on the sides and the back of the large meeting room.
State Rep. Mary-Jo Daley and Lower Merion Township Commissioner Brian Gordon were on hand to answer questions. Dan was introduced by Gayle Samuels of Fair Districts PA and the League of Women Voters.
Dan Loeb, a PhD. mathematician, said, “Voters are supposed to choose their legislatures. However, with gerrymandering, legislators choose their voters” (to ensure they will be re-elected).
Dan explained, “PA Congressional District 7 is often listed as one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country. It’s been named ‘Goofy kicking Donald.’ That is Donald Duck on the left, being kicked by Goofy on the right. Obviously it’s not compact and it has a weird shape. But the real story isn’t the shape – it’s the purposes behind the shape.”
When politicians draw the lines to protect incumbents, to favor one political party, or to dilute the votes of particular citizen groups, everyone loses. Legislators find themselves listening more to party leadership than to voters, while voters feel disenfranchised and lose interest in elections.
Because of political manipulation of electoral boundaries, many of Pennsylvania’s electoral districts are no longer competitive. In fact, a growing number of Pennsylvania candidates now run unopposed.
Here is a humorous video explaining gerrymandering and some of its practical consequences:
The Fair Districts PA coalition is pursuing several avenues to make voting districts more equitable. They are working with state legislatures to write a bill that would eventually change the Pennsylvania State Constitution to require fair voting districts. Changing the state constitution is a long, challenging process, but it can be done.
They are also working towards a state court challenge of the voting district maps that ensure politicians will be re-elected. Some people suggest that litigation is the best solution, and point to legal challenges in Pennsylvania in 2011, and around the country in more recent years. In 2011, there were multiple challenges of state legislative maps. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared the 2011 redistricting plan for the Pennsylvania House and Senate “contrary to law” and ordered the commission to revise it. The 2012 legislative elections were held using the existing 2001 plans. That delay triggered other lawsuits. The new plan was a little better, but not much.
While appeals to the state Supreme Court can bring some redress to severely gerrymandered districts, the reality is that appeals are costly, time consuming, and disrupt the electoral process, sometimes for years. At least five states are still in litigation over maps drawn in 2011.
The problem of gerrymandering is so consequential that an hour after the end of the lecture, attendees where still asking questions and talking about solutions. The audience had to be forced to leave, so the library could close for the night.
Several groups of people stood outside in the cold to continue their lively discussions. In one of those groups, Joe Ferraro explained his idea to get ordinary citizens to draw voting district maps, using readily available mapping software programs. The citizens of Pennsylvania would vote for the maps they preferred. The winners of the elections would receive cash payments for their work.
Fair Districts PA came together in January 2016, when leaders in Pennsylvania good-government non-profits realized they needed to work together more effectively to support legislators interested in seeing this change. Leadership of the group is provided by the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and Common Cause PA, with member organizations from all sides of the political spectrum and all corners of the state. (The Philadelphia Jewish Voice is also a member.) The Fair Districts PA website provides background, action ideas and news on redistricting from within the state and around the country. Join Fair Districts PA to learn about volunteer opportunities and receive informative emails.
Fair Districts PA priorities:
- Assign the redistricting power to an independent commission, of which neither the commissioners, nor members of their immediate families, may be government or political party officials.
- Ensure the transparency of the process and meaningful opportunities for public participation.
- Conduct redistricting once each decade, following the census, with a strict timeline for completion.
- Address other causes of districting unfairness.
Video credit: Dan Loeb. Photo credits: Joseph Fischer
You can view Dan’s full lecture here: