Fair Districts PA Coalition Making Our Vote Count

The Philadelphia Jewish Voice, the League of Women Voters and other organizations across the state announced the formation of a new coalition called Fair Districts PA. The coalition’s purpose is to advocate for reform of Pennsylvania’s redistricting rules to make the process of drawing electoral districts impartial, transparent, and accountable.

Pennsylvania's current redistricting plan is on the left. A hypothetical plan with compact districts is above on the right.

Pennsylvania’s current redistricting plan is on the left. A hypothetical plan with compact districts is above on the right.

Congressional and state legislative electoral maps are redrawn every ten years following the national census. In Pennsylvania, the process of drawing those maps is controlled almost entirely by state legislators, a conflict of interest that puts politicians in charge and takes away the rights of voters.

Some states, most notably Arizona and California, have reformed the process by establishing impartial citizen commissions and clear standards for how districts are to be drawn. The results have shown increased voter engagement and more competitive elections.

Fair District PA’s priorities include:

  • Assigning 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.
  • Ensuring the transparency of the process and meaningful opportunities for public participation.
  • Establishing verifiable statistical standards for a fair election process.

[Read more…]

Take Action to End Gerrymandering

PA-177-District

Pennsylvania’s 177th Legislative District carves out a Republican stronghold in Philadelphia. Image: BallotPedia.

(JSPAN) Pennsylvania has some of the most gerrymandered political districts in the country. The Jewish Social Policy Action Network has long supported the creation of an independent redistricting system to restore competitive elections and government accountability and action to improve the Commonwealth’s process for reapportionment and redrawing of electoral districts.

Toward these goals, the JSPAN Board recently voted to join with the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the Philadelphia Jewish Voice and independent citizens across the Commonwealth in a coalition endorsing the efforts of Fair Districts PA to ensure fair districts and fair elections for voters in Pennsylvania. We believe that redistricting should be done in a manner that is transparent, impartial and fair. [Read more…]

Bipartisan Group Tackles Redistricting Reform in Harrisburg

— Charles M. Tocci

Calling it an “imperative” first step to any government reform initiative, a bipartisan, bicameral group of Pennsylvania lawmakers today announced the formation of a legislative workgroup aimed at hammering out redistricting reform legislation.

“Modern day government has deteriorated into a politically tainted, polarized and gridlocked force that is more about self-preservation than representative government,” said Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton). “This bipartisan effort is not about whether we need to change redistricting, but how we should change it.”

The number of interactions between cross-party pairs has decreased drastically from 1949 to 2011. (Image: Clio Andris)

The number of interactions between cross-party pairs has decreased drastically from 1949 to 2011. (Image: Clio Andris)

The lawmakers claim that Pennsylvania’s many oddly shaped, gerrymandered districts have created politically impenetrable fiefdoms that pressure lawmakers to toe the party line at the expense of bipartisanship and compromise. A recent Penn State study concluded that members of Congress are now nearly seven times less likely to cross-vote on issues than they were a few decades ago. In the 112th Congress (2011-2013), just 7 of the 444 members accounted for 98.3% of all cross-votes.

Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) noted, “We’ve heard our constituents’ ask for a more accountable government and a more open and transparent redistricting process in Pennsylvania. I hope the formation of this bipartisan redistricting reform group shows that we are listening to those concerns, and we’re ready and willing to work together to overcome current challenges. This is a significant first step toward a bipartisan solution that works for all of Pennsylvania.

Rep. Mike Carroll (D-Luzerne) said, “There are some good proposals on the table. This workgroup’s job is to find common ground, draw the best from various ideas, and emerge with a strong bipartisan solution that we can all rally around.”

Sen. John Eichelberger (R-Blair) added, “I believe that the difficulties and delays that plagued Pennsylvania’s last attempt to put together a timely map of legislative districts emphasizes the need to explore new methods of reapportionment in the Commonwealth. For that reason, I am happy to participate in the efforts of this workgroup.”

The lawmakers said it is important that the redistricting reform process take shape this legislative session to have a new system in place when district maps are redrawn again for the 2020 census. To change the redistricting process, the state legislature must pass legislation changing the state’s constitution in two consecutive sessions. Voters must then approve the reform proposal via referendum.

“Our democratic system requires that voters choose their legislators, but our politically motivated redistricting process allows legislators to choose voters instead,” said state Sen. Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin/Perry). “That must change.”

Lawmakers claim that the last Legislative Reapportionment Commission largely ignored sound redistricting tenants such as contiguity, compactness and community of interest. New legislative maps, which were supposed to be in place for the 2012 elections, were overturned by the state Supreme Court as being “contrary to law.” The decision sent the commission’s lawmakers, lawyers and staffers back to the drawing board and kept old legislative boundaries in place for the 2012 election.

Members of the group pointed out that the method we use for congressional redistricting in Pennsylvania isn’t any better. The 11th Congressional district runs from Adams County to the northern tier, while the 15th Congressional district goes from Easton to Harrisburg, and the 12th Congressional District traverses from Cambria County to the Ohio line.

The legislators said that drawing Congressional districts is more politically charged than drawing the state House and Senate districts because Congressional districts are presented in bill form and goes through the legislative process. A bipartisan reapportionment commission comprised of caucus leaders meets and deliberates on state House and Senate districts before presenting its state legislative redistricting proposal.

Non-partisan map would give Pennsylvania less biased representation in Congress.

Non-partisan map would give Pennsylvania less biased representation in Congress.

(Editor: Stephen Wolf has computed non-partisan maps “that give voters a real choice and allow the majority to have its voice heard.” Here are his maps for Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Wisconsin and other states.
Even more representative maps can be drawn by actively seeking proportional representation and competitive districts instead of ignoring partisanship as Stephen Wolf does.)

Other lawmakers at the news conference included Senator John Blake (D-Lackawanna), along with Representatives Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks), Dave Parker (R-Monroe) and Steve Also on hand to express their organization’s support for redistricting reform were: Barry Kauffman, Common Cause; Susan Carty, League of Women Voters and Desiree Hung, AARP.

Phil. Jewish Voice Testifies at Joint House-Senate Redistricting Hearing

Testimony on Congressional Redistricting Given at Joint Hearing of the Pennsylvania State Senate Committee and State House Committee on State Government

Honorable Chairmen and members of the committees, thank you for holding these hearings and for inviting me to speak to you today. Holding hearings like this is an important first step in including the public in this crucial part of our democratic process.

Public oversight is a crucial part of the checks and balances necessary to ensure that redistricting process is not abused to advantage any political party, protect incumbents, or punish political rivals. Democracy requires competitive elections and representative government.


In a democracy, voters choose their representative to protect the common interest. Unfortunately, we have grown accustomed to a system of gerrymandering which turns democracy upside-down so that it is politicians who choose their voters strategically in order to advance their personal interests rather than the other way around.Packing the voters into a small number of districts in order to isolate them. (Figure 3) Cracking voters across multiple districts in order to dilute them. (Figure 4) And counting convicts where they are imprisoned rather than where they usually live. In a state like Pennsylvania where the process is totally controlled by a single political party, there may be a temptation to engage in partisan gerrymandering unless the media and the public are vigilant in their oversight.


Even when Democratic and Republican politicians share power, there is a possibility of mutually agreeable “sweetheart” gerrymandering as Democrats and Republicans engage in unseemly exchanges of constituents with the Democrat legislator offering up his Republican voters in exchange for his Republican colleague’s Democratic voters. (Figure 2)

In order to encourage public participation in the redistricting process, the Philadelphia Jewish Voice and its partners – the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and Common Cause Pennsylvania – hope to run a Redistricting Content similar to those run in Virginia and Ohio and being run in Michigan, Arizona and Massachusetts.

The idea is to make Azavea’s DistrictBuilder, Redistricting Software, and the underlying geographic, demographic and electoral data available freely on the Internet.  We now have the technology to allow everyone to have a say in the redistricting process.

The Pennsylvania Redistricting Contest will be judged by impartial numerical criteria measuring:
equality, continuity, integrity, competitiveness, proportionality and compactness.

  1. Equality. The principal of one-man, one-vote is enshrined in the Voting Rights Act and the Pennsylvania Constitution. We will not allow districts to deviate from their ideal population range and we will reward plans which promote higher standards of equality. Furthermore, we will require that majority-minority districts be maintained as required by the Voting Rights Act.
  2. Contiguity. Each district must be contiguous and not contain any parts which are connected to the other parts at a single point.
  3. Integrity. The Pennsylvania Constitution prohibits legislative districts which divide any “county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward…unless absolutely necessary.” By minimizing splits, voters understand easily who their representative is, and township and county officials do not have to interface with as many legislators. Our contest will penalize redistricting plans which unnecessarily divide these communities of interest.
  4. Competitiveness. Gerrymandering undermines the democratic process by creating uncompetitive districts. When 90% of an incumbent’s constituents belong to his political party, the incumbent is guaranteed reelection and no longer has any incentive to be responsive to the needs of his constituents. Non-competitive districts make everyone’s vote irrelevant and reduce accountability. Our contest will penalize plans which create these sorts of lopsided districts.
  5. Proportionality. The goal of partisan gerrymandering is to deliver a disproportionate share of the representation of the state into the hands of the political party controlling the redistricting process. In Pennsylvania, there are over 4 registered Democrats for every 3 registered Republicans, yet,Democrats only hold 37% of the Congressional delegation, 40% of the  State Senate, and 45% seats in the State House.

  6. Compactness. Bizarre shaped districts are a tell-tale sign that a map-makers is up to no good extending tentacles out of a district of their supporters to encompass his residence, or excising a community of opponents in order to secure his reelection. Our contest classify districts whose perimeter is disproportionately long compared to its area, and penalize redistricting plans accordingly.

Our hope is that the State Government Committees, Legislative Reapportionment Commission, and independent groups interested in political reform will support this initiative and help us make the DistrictBuilder software available to the general public.

Making tools like these available to the public as Florida and Alaska has value even in the absence of a contest.

However, we look forward to determining the best plan and promulgating it as an unbiased baseline against which the legislature’s plans can be compared.

More after the jump.
Thank you for your time. If you would like more details on our proposal and on the results of the Redistricting Contests held or being held in other states, please email me at [email protected]

Appendices

1. Michigan Citizens’ Redistricting Competition Rules and Procedures

2. Feedback from Virginia contest (Prof. Michael McDonald, George Mason University)

These winning student competition plans had an effect on the policy discourse. All three of the winning plans following the governor’s criteria were introduced a bills in the state legislature, and all students and faculty were recognized by the legislature and the governor. A winning congressional plan following the governor’s criteria draw by a team of William and Mary law school students became the basis of a plan adopted by the governor’s commission. This congressional plan was notable in that it reconfigured the state’s only voting rights district in such a way that made it substantially more compact, and thus enabled districts throughout the state to significantly improve their compactness. The concept of reconfiguring the voting rights district was implemented in a plan championed by the legislative black caucus,  which further created an African-American influence district in the Hampton Roads area. This was the plan adopted by the Democratically controlled Senate.

   Voting rights issues were also explored in the state legislative plans. Many students attempted to draw a Hispanic majority voting-age population district, but none were successful. A winning University of Virginia team Senate plan created six African-American majority voting-age
population districts, where the current plan only had five. However, these districts were barely above 50%, which was significantly below the percentages that received Department of Justice preclearance under Section 5 the previous decade. The governor’s commission explored if it was possible to increase the African-American voting age populations of these districts, but did not find it was possible to do so greatly. Although it was not part of the student competition, a House of Delegates plan drawn by Dr. McDonald for the commission demonstrated it is possible to draw thirteen African-American majority voting-age population districts, whereas the plans
adopted by the legislature only had twelve. This thirteenth district was discovered in the course of drawing districts that were compact and respected existing political boundaries, in accordance to the governor’s criteria.

   These plans provide evidence that greater public participation enables fresh approaches to drawing redistricting plans that may have otherwise gone undiscovered. Redistricting is an extremely complex problem. In a modestly sized state, there are more solutions than there are quarks in the universe (Altman and McDonald 2010). More eyes on the problem means more
opportunities to see new solutions. These plans illuminated paths to improve racial representation, thereby demonstrating that reformers’ goals may not necessarily be at odds with the voting rights community. We explore trade-offs among the competition criteria further in our analysis of the student competition, commission, and legislative plans.

We Need Your Help To Slay The Gerrymander

— by Lora Lavin, Representative Government Specialist, League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania

The Jewish Social Policy Action Network, League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, Common Cause Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Jewish Voice need your help to launch to redistricting contest. The contest would set a fair baseline by which politician-drawn maps could be measured.

  • Left unchecked: politicians choose their voters instead of letting voters select their representatives.
  • Gerrymandering is the equivalent of rigging elections to get a predetermined outcome.
  • We believe some good old-fashioned competition can keep politicians honest.

The biggest political power-play of the decade is about to get underway in Pennsylvania.   It is, perhaps, the most  self-serving and least transparent process of state and local government.  It’s called redistricting.  The outcome will determine the shape of representative democracy in Pennsylvania for the next decade.

Redistricting is the process of redrawing congressional, legislative, and local government representatives’ district boundaries so that each district has approximately the same number of people.  The goal is to ensure communities have an equal voice in Congress, state legislatures and city and township councils.  

But the politicians don’t see it that way.  In Pennsylvania and most other states, district lines are drawn by the very lawmakers whose political careers will be affected by the changes.  For them, redistricting is an opportunity to consolidate political power and ensure their reelection prospects.  For example, Philadelphia’s 172nd House District was transformed during the previous redistricting in order to guarantee the reelection of a powerful legislator.  It was only after a political scandal that he was eventually defeated last year.

Modern technology makes this kind of extreme gerrymandering possible.  Using expensive and sophisticated software, politicians can select their voters block by block and even house by house.  The tools they use are “proprietary” meaning access is limited to those with the ability to pay lots of money.  But now, a Philadelphia based software firm, Azavea, in partnership with a political science professor at George Mason University in Virginia, has developed DistrictBuilder. This relatively inexpensive open-source redistricting tool can be used by ordinary citizens to draw district maps and bring elections back into the hands of the people.  

To see how Profs. Michael McDonald (George Mason Univ., Brooking Inst.) and Micah Altman (Harvard, Brookings Inst.) used DistrictBuilder to run Virginia’s redistricting contest, visit the Public Mapping Project website demopublicmapping.org.

The Philadelphia Jewish Voice, in partnership with JSPAN, Common Cause/PA and the PA League of Women Voters want to use DistrictBuilder to sponsor a redistricting competition and demonstrate that a non-partisan, open redistricting process based on objective criteria can produce fair legislative and congressional district maps in Pennsylvania.  The competition would be open to individuals.  The winners would be selected through an objective scoring system based on anti-gerrymandering criteria of compactness, competitiveness, representativeness, equality and integrity.

The three sponsoring organizations can contribute $6,000 toward prizes and incidental competition costs.  But to use the software we need to raise $35,000 before May 1.  Can you help?  To make a tax-deductible contribution click the button or contact [email protected] (Contributions directed to this project will be refunded if we do not meet our fundraising goal.)

For more information or become a co-sponsoring organizations, please contact Dan Loeb [email protected]

More after the jump.
The Philadelphia Jewish Voice is organized pursuant to Pennsylvania’s non-profit corporation law. We have tax exempt status under IRS Code Section 501(c)(3). For more information visit GuideStar.

Contributions are tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law. The official registrations and financial information of The Philadelphia Jewish Voice may be obtained from the Pennsylvania Department of State by calling toll-free, within Pennsylvania, 1-800-732-0999. Registration does not imply endorsement.