Gerrymandering: The uphill battle for change

By on October 18, 2017

By Marylouise Sholly

The members of FairDistrictsPA know their quest to outlaw boundary manipulation for political advantage, a practice known as gerrymandering, will be a challenge.

But they do have an important ally on their side &tstr; Pennsylvania’s Constitution, which states that the Commonwealth should have 50 senatorial districts and 203 representative districts, and they should all be “compact and touching each other.”

Pennsylvania’s chopped-up voting districts don’t resemble that mandate at all, said Jayne Buchwach, registration coordinator for FairDistrictsPA.

Buchwach was the featured speaker at a public education program held Oct. 10 at the Warwick Township municipal building on Clay Road.

FairDistrictsPA, sponsor of the event, is a non-partisan organization working for redistricting reform in the state.

About 30 people attended the meeting to find out more about gerrymandering, to understand the problems brought about by the tactic, and to look at proposed legislative changes.

Gerrymandering is a complicated process, a way of dividing a county into election districts to give one political party a majority, while concentrating the voting strength of the other party into as few districts as possible.

After researching the complex subject, Buchwach said she asked herself, “How can this be? How can my vote not count?”

More districts equals fewer voters per district. Gerrymandering, or redistricting, is forming a voter district to the benefit of one party or candidate.

“It’s voter suppression,” Buchwach said. “You’re suppressing the vote when you systematically draw lines to select voters. It’s the power of the pencil.”

As an example, Buchwach told local residents about a redistricting situation in South Carolina. An area with a large black population, a “voting block,” was cut into and the voters redistributed. That way, they had less voting strength due to fewer numbers.

In her presentation, Buchwach quoted the late President Ronald Reagan’s opinion on gerrymandering, from a speech he gave in 1991.

“Gerrymandering is the practice of rigging the boundaries of congressional districts and is the greatest single blot on the integrity of our nation’s electoral system,” Reagan had said. “Gerrymandered districts are grotesque, misshapen symbols of political chicanery.”

Reagan wanted states to set up bipartisan citizen commissions to draw district lines. That’s much the same plan being promoted by FairDistrictsPA.

The term “gerrymandering” dates back to 1812, when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry approved a bill that drew districts favoring his party. The long and squiggly map of his districts resembled a salamander, and a newspaper reporter of the time termed the district the “Gerrymander” in an unflattering poke at the governor.

Pennsylvania is known as one of the most gerrymandered states in the Union, Buchwach said.

In fact, she said, Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District is often cited as the country’s most gerrymandered district.

“It’s used in civics classes, folks,” Buchwach said.

The 7th District is comprised of parts of Lancaster, Bucks, Berks, Chester, Montgomery, and Delaware counties, and Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania has earned this distinction for three reasons, Buchwach said: The state has no limitations on PAC (political action committee) donations, no limitations on lobbyist donations, and no limits on funds raised by outside groups.

Pennsylvania also ranked 43rd of 50 states for integrity of the electoral process, according to The Center for Public Integrity.

Pennsylvania got an “F” grade in 2015 in a state integrity investigation, Buchwach added.

“The state is also a gerrymandering target because we have the largest full-time legislature in the country,” Buchwach said.

The process of gerrymandering has increased in recent years due to better mapping technology, undisclosed outside funding, and “data mining,” or finding information that could be helpful to the investigator, such as where one shops, what they buy, and what their interests are.

Gerrymandering’s impact on voters is that it gives them less choice. That can mean fewer choices in the primary, and, many times, no choice in the general election.

“There are too many incumbents with no challengers, so people are unable to vote them out,” Buchwach said. “If we’re unable to vote people out, we end up with a stagnant legislature that gets nothing done.”

Elections are decided in the primary, but that doesn’t reflect the general population, because there’s no competition, she said.

Legislative bodies have become known for rhetoric that goes nowhere, gridlock, and unfulfilled promises instead of solutions, Buchwach said.

In government today, high barriers to entry exist for third-party candidates, there’s no accountability for results, and no opposing forces to restore healthy competition, Buchwach said, citing an editorial from the Harvard Business School. FairDistrictsPA wants an independent redistricting commission formed, a transparent process with public participation so the voters can know what’s going on, and a strict timeline for completion of newly-drawn districts.

Two bills against gerrymandering are currently in committee. The bipartisan bills, PA Senate Bill 22 and PA House Bill 722, would take the power of redistricting from politicians and put it into the hands of an impartial citizens commission.

“The clock is ticking for us. We’ve got to get those bills out of committee and onto the floor,” Buchwach said, adding that the bills need to be passed by the legislature by July of 2018.

Two national suits have been filed against gerrymandering &tstr; Gill vs. Whitford, out of Wisconsin, and the other by the League of Women Voters. The Supreme Court could strike down gerrymandering, Buchwach said, depending on the litigation’s outcome.

“We do need to get more aggressive and you can take action by contacting your legislator,” Buchwach said. “Let them know we’d like a level playing field.”

Talking points and details are on the group’s website to start that conversation, she said.

Not everyone at last week’s meeting was sure that political change will ever come.

“Republicans won’t bring this up for a vote, they’ll make sure it stays in committee,” said Bruce Beardsley of Manheim Township. “The state Constitution is pretty clear (on forming districts) and they are not abiding by it. Maybe we should contact Pennsylvania judges.”

But Anne Wallace DiGarbo disagreed, saying she believed in the power of grassroots movements to effect change.

“With enough public outcry, they might move the bills out of committee,” DiGarbo said. “When people are incensed they can make a difference.”

For more information, go to FairDistrictsPA.com.

Marylouise Sholly is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Record Express. She welcomes reader feedback at weezsholly@verizon.net.

One Comment

  1. J Brooks

    October 18, 2017 at 10:23 am

    One must question … Why was this not an issue for the past 8 years? Why are these voting districts suddenly a problem now?

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