Gerrymandering. Weird word.
In 1812, Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed a law that changed the state voting districts to benefit his political party (his party was the Democratic-Republican Party, kind of ironic!). One of the districts ended up looking like a salamander. Combine the governor’s name with that of the amphibian and, voila, “gerrymander.”
A few weeks ago I attended a program by Fair Districts PA on gerrymandering in our fine state and learned some amazing things:
Pennsylvania 7th congressional district is considered by many the most gerrymandered district in the country.
Article 2, Section 16 of the PA Constitution states that districts should be “composed of compact and contiguous territory as nearly equal in population as practicable” and “unless absolutely necessary no county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward shall be divided in forming either a senatorial or representative district.”
Apparently the definitions of “practicable” and “absolutely necessary” are quite fluid for our state legislators. Here is the picture of the 7th district, which is often described as “Goofy kicking Donald Duck”:
District 7 includes parts of five counties, including Montgomery County, which is part of five different congressional districts and yet has not one representative living within its borders. Does this fit the PA Constitution’s instruction on not separating counties, towns, boroughs, etc., unless “absolutely necessary”?!
My own congressional district, District 16, is a “lassoed” district, designed to dilute or waste the votes of the predominately poor city of Reading. A narrow band connects the city to mostly rural Lancaster County.
As Fair Districts PA puts it, “As a result, politicians serving this district end up ignoring the needs of Reading. Looking at this map, it’s no surprise that Reading has the most underfunded school district in the country—because politicians aren’t paying attention to the city’s needs.”
There are other schemes—like “packing” and “cracking”—used to rig the districts to ensure elections of a particular party or incumbent.
The majority party in the PA House and Senate get to redraw the maps as they choose after each census and present it as a bill to (hopefully) be passed in both houses and signed by the governor. No oversight of the process or fair representation of the minority party.
Politicians no longer need to listen to their supposed constituents because Super PACs, lobbyists and consultants pour big money and big data into the process, using mapping technology to piece together the perfect district to ensure the desired election result. You and I often don’t get to elect our representatives—money and gerrymandering do.
- Pennsylvania is ranked 43rd out of 50 in the integrity of its electoral process, in part because we have no limits to PAC money.
- The state is also considered the worst offender in wasted votes, thanks to districts rigged to ensure an overwhelming majority for one party. For instance in the 2012 elections for PA’s 18 House of Representative seats, 50.5% of voters voted Democratic and 49.5 voted Republican. And yet the actual representative result was 15 Republican seats and 3 Democratic seats!
- No wonder the Brennan Center for Justice considers Pennsylvania one of the top three states for extreme partisan bias.
The reactions to Charlottesville that I heard this weekend, particularly people’s surprise that such racism still exists in our country, reminded me of the injustice of redistricting. It is one of the many ways systemic racism is still practiced in our country. In May the Supreme Court struck down North Carolina’s districts because they were deemed designed to pack blacks into fewer districts, thus diluting their voting power.
Many friends have rung their hands on Facebook over what they could possibly do to “prove” they aren’t racist or to end systemic racism in our country. Here is a concrete step: Work to end gerrymandering.
If you’re in Pennsylvania, get involved with Fair Districts PA, which is working to change the districting process. There are concrete ways we can help—from contacting legislators to writing op-eds to getting local resolutions passed. Upcoming Lancaster County events are listed to the right. If you live in another state, search for a group working in your area.
I want my vote to count. And I want my representative to actually represent me. And I want this for all Americans, whatever their skin color or ethnic background.
Let’s allow Charlottesville to inspire us to action. The white supremacists and neo-Nazis and KKK came from all over the country to Charlottesville, spending their own time and money. It’s time we also awoke from our comfortable lethargy and got to work providing a fair vote for every American.
2 thoughts on “Charlottesville, Gerrymandering and Me”
Thanks for this information Carol. I will share this and put on my schedule that September 26th date. Lots to learn.
There is so much for all of us to learn. Thanks for your willingness to do so! And for the share.