How a Citizens Commission Can End Gerrymandering, Return Sanity to our Political Process and Even Improve Our Economy
It has famously been described as Goofy kicking Donald Duck. Is it a cartoon drawing? A Rorschach inkblot test? No, it’s Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, one of the most gerrymandered congressional districts in the country. It stretches, dips, cuts, and curves in a highly contorted fashion over five separate counties, lumping together Pennsylvania voters from the Maryland border with voters north of Reading and those living east of Blue Bell.
Is there a reason anyone should care? Haven’t politicians been engaging in gerrymandering since Eldridge Gerry, its namesake, approved a salamander shaped district in Massachusetts back in 1812? Whether you are a Republican, a Democrat or an Independent, there is plenty of reason to care.
Competitive Elections Create Robust Representation
With the advent of mapping technologies and voter sorting software, partisan legislators now use very precise tools to draw the district lines around the voters that they want, creating exceptionally safe seats. When legislators are in safe seats, they have no incentive to work with their colleagues across the aisle or even to address the concerns of constituents. Elections are not competitive and are usually decided in the low-voter-turnout primaries. In 2016, in a shocking 57% of Pennsylvania state house general election races, there was just one person on the ballot. The opposition party did not even field a candidate. Over 91% of races had an incumbent running for reelection and 86% of races had no primary opponent. Pennsylvania voters feel disenfranchised, and rightly so.
Pennsylvania is one of the most gerrymandered states in the country — and there are numbers to prove it. The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute dedicated to improving our democracy, analyzed the 2012, 2014 and 2016 congressional elections using three separate quantitative measures of partisan bias.1That quantitative analysis found Pennsylvania to be one of three states with consistently extreme levels of partisan bias.2 The Brennan Center considers this level of gerry-mandering to be an alarming threat to democracy.3
Without competitive elections, legislators pander to their extreme base to stay in office. Compromise becomes impossible, the important business of governing is mired in gridlock, and our infrastructure, educational system, economy, and prosperity suffer. A September 2016 report of Harvard Business School’s U.S. Competitiveness Project includes this key finding: “The U.S. political system was once the envy of many nations… Today, we believe that our political system is now the major obstacle to progress on the economy…”4 How to fix that broken political 2017system? Harvard Business School alumni believe that gerrymandering reform is the top priority.
How to Solve the Gerrymandering Problem
As lawyers, we are trained to look for and to avoid conflicts of interest. Shouldn’t legislators do the same? Drawing the boundaries of their own districts, choosing the people they want to vote for them, is a clear conflict of interest. Voters should choose their legislators, not the other way around. The good news is that there is something we can do about this problem.
The Pennsylvania Constitution currently provides for state house and senate redistricting to be accomplished by a reapportionment commission consisting of five legislators, two each from the majority and the minority party with the fifth member, the chairperson, to be selected by the four members.6 If the four are unable to agree on the fifth member, which has historically been the case, a majority of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court appoints the fifth member. The fifth member tilts the balance in favor of one party or the other, and the gerrymandering begins.A bipartisan group of Pennsylvania legislators is seeking to reform this broken system. Senate Bill 22, introduced by Senators Lisa Boscola (D) and Mario Scavello (R) and co-sponsored by 10 other senators, and House Bill 722, introduced by Steve Samuelson (D) and Eric Roe (R) and cosponsored by 90 other representatives, would put redistricting into the hands of an independent citizens commission that would redraw the district lines in an open and fair manner. The commission would be composed of 11 willing citizens randomly chosen from a vetted pool of registered voters, four of whom are registered with the largest political party, four of whom are registered with the second-largest party, and three of whom are unaffil-iated with either of the largest political parties.
The process for redistricting would be transparent, with opportunity for public input, and the commission would not be permitted to consider prior election results, the party affiliations of voters or the addresses of any individual.
Time is Critical
To accomplish these common-sense reforms, the Pennsyl-vania Constitution must be amended. In order to do so, a bill establishing the citizens commission must pass both the Pennsylvania House and the Senate in two consecutive legislative sessions and then be approved by voters. Both SB22 and HB722 have been introduced and referred to committee. Each is waiting to be scheduled for action by the committees’ chairs. Time is of the essence as the decennial census, and hence redistricting, is only a few short years away.As lawyers, we are well-positioned to advocate for passage of redistricting reform by getting involved in the process, making our views known to our legislators and spreading the word about this crucial issue. Tired of partisan extremism and bickering? Don’t just complain, get involved! Redistricting reform, a bipartisan cause, is a vitally important first step to ending the fanatical partisanship that has gripped our state and country and created virtual gridlock in our legislatures. Our democratic system deserves better. It is time to return the power to the people of the Commonwealth and to make our political system, once again, the envy of the world.
1 Brennan Center for Justice, Extreme Maps, published May 2017 (Efficiency Gap Analysis, Seats-to-Votes Curve Analysis and Means-Median Difference Analysis).
2 Id. at page 15.
3 Id. at page 1.
4 https://www.hbs.edu/competitiveness/Documents/problems-unsolved-and-a-nation-divided.pdf, page 48.
5 https://www.hbs.edu/competitiveness/Documents/problems-unsolved-and-a-nation-divided.pdf, page 55.
6 Section 17 of Article II of the Constitution of Pennsylvania.
Reprinted with permission from Bucks Writs, Summer 2017 Issue, bw.hoffmannpublishing.com, written by Theresa Martin Golding, Esq. Golding Heefner