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The Sad, sordid tale of Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania

I am running for Congress in Pennsylvania. It is a hard-fought, competitive race. The voters have a real choice. Things are working exactly as our founders intended. But the only reason this is true, is because I am running in a Democratic primary for an open seat, vacated when our Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz announced she is running for Governor.

In November, there will be a general election, which will almost certainly play out in ways decided at odds with what our founders intended. You see, Pennsylvania has 18 Congressional Districts, and it is extremely likely that none of them will be remotely competitive.

People will still turn up to vote, particular in the Governor’s race, which will be competitive because you can’t gerrymander an entire state. And folks will talk to their neighbors, and, if their polling place is like mine and has a bake sale, they’ll nibble on delightful carbohydrate-laden confections. But their vote for Congress will be utterly meaningless. Like a Soviet election, everyone will know who is going to win every seat before the first vote is cast.

A little background: Pennsylvania is arguably the most aggressively gerrymandered state in the nation. This is not a new thing. We have always delighted in how aggressively we can marginalize our voters. In fact, when the United States Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of political gerrymandering in Vieth vs. Jubelirer, it was Pennsylvania’s 2000 gerrymander at issue.

In the Keystone State, Congressional reapportionment is simply a bill that is passed by the House and Senate and signed by the Governor. There is no commission. And if one party controls the entire government, which happened in 2011 (and had also been the case in 2000), that party can literally do anything it wants. And the Republicans did.

I’ve been told by a number of people in a position to know that there was literally a meeting at the Harrisburg Hilton, where Republican Congressmen and Republican legislative leaders met, spread maps on a large table, and carved up the state. It goes without saying that no Democrats were invited. This makes me sad. I would have loved to go.

I would note that while the Republicans were opportunistic and ruthless, it was not the Democrats’ finest hour. Virtually all of the Democratic Congressmen called me and my Democratic colleagues in the legislature and urged us to vote for the gerrymander bill.  This is because while it consigned us as a party to a small minority of seats for at least a decade, it made their seats better for them. This is because the Republicans were shoving every Democratic neighborhood they could find into the 5 Democratic districts. I am proud that I voted against the bill nonetheless, even though I will now benefit from it if I win my primary.

Here are some of the statistical results of the 2011 gerrymander. In PA there were approximately 89,000 more votes for Democratic Congressional candidates than Republicans in 2012, but the delegation is 13-5 Republican. None of the races were even close. The closest was the 12th district where Democrat Mark Critz was defeated by Republican Keith Rothfus. The margin was almost 12,000 votes, which was not exactly a nail biter.

Further, Critz was an incumbent. With a Republican incumbent the 12th is not likely to be that close again any time soon. Further, 2012 was a really good year for Democrats. President Obama carried the state by 309,000 votes and the Democrats swept the state-wide row office elections. If we can’t do better than 5 seats in a Democratic sweep, it is highly unlikely we will make much headway in a more neutral or GOP-leaning year.

So how blatant were the Republicans? Well, for example, take a look at the 7th District.

This is truly a work of art. The reason it looks like this is because Republican incumbent Patrick Meehan had a problem. He lives in the easternmost part of Delaware County, but Southeast PA is becoming increasingly Democratic. So there aren’t enough Republicans surrounding his residence to give him a safe seat. So they had to stretch his district all the way out to rural Lancaster and Berks County to find the Republican voters he needs. Each jig and jag of this district avoids an inconvenient Democratic neighborhood. But while the 7th is my personal favorite, all of Pennsylvania’s districts pretty much look this badly.

I then put together a graphic, first showing PA’s current state-wide Congressional Gerrymander. As you can see, 13-5 GOP. I then took the liberty of pretending that I was the Senate majority leader. Once I moved into my fancy new office (I took the fantasy very seriously) I set about redrawing a district as obscenely Democratic as the current map is obscenely Republican. And in fact, I was able to draw a perfectly legal map which is 13-5 Democratic.

It struck me that my map actually looked far less contorted and unreasonable. But take a moment to absorb the larger point. I was able to literally flip 8 Congressional seats from Republican to Democratic, without a single person in the entire state voting differently than they actually did in 2012 from a partisan perspective.

Given that, a question is begged: How relevant are the voters in this process? The answer? Utterly irrelevant! The people have literally no power to choose their congressional representation. The only person with any power is the dude drawing the map.

Does this make you angry? It should. The folks drawing these maps are laughing at you. If you vote in a way that they consider inconvenient, or pesky, they just move you to a district where your silly little vote won’t make the slightest bit of difference. They are stealing your vote from you and making a mockery of the very idea of democracy.

As a result, we have representation that does not represent the will of the voters (90,000 more Democrats, 13-5 Republican). We are robbed of real public debate that comes from contested political campaigns. If someone can never lose, his or her opponent (in the increasingly unlikely case that there is an opponent) can never win. So they get no money and no media attention, so there is no real campaign.

But it’s worse than that. The most pernicious consequence of gerrymandering is the literal death of our ability to govern ourselves. Government in a democracy is the result of debate, negotiation, compromise and the drive to solve problems. If I am a Congressman in a 50-50 district, my political incentive is to look reasonable, appeal to the center and pass legislation I can brag about.

But if I am in a district I can never lose to a member of the other party, my incentives are very different. I have no need to reach out to the other side or appear to be reasonable. If I can only lose in a primary to someone more ideologically pure than I am, then my incentive is to be as vociferously ideological as possible, demonize anyone who disagrees with me, and in general seem as crazy as possible to ward off a possible (for example) tea party challenge.

Some people say that if we continue this way, we won’t be the same country in a few years. But I’d argue we are already not the same country. We now govern ourselves from crisis to crisis, in 3 or 4 month intervals. We can’t pass legislation that the overwhelming majority of America wants, such as background checks for weapons purchases and immigration reform. This will only get worse as our ability to gerrymander becomes more sophisticated and our political system becomes ever more procrustean.

This won’t change until people demand reform. Legislators have to start losing elections over this. We need to start confronting law makers in town halls and demand to know why they supported the theft of our democracy. We need to stop supporting gerrymanders even than benefit our party or ourselves. If we don’t, we will have to answer to our children when they ask us why we let America slip away.

To learn more about me, or to join our campaign, please visit

Originally posted to Daylin Leach on Mon Jan 06, 2014 at 07:17 AM PST.

Also republished by Pittsburgh Area Kossacks, Philly Kos, DKos Pennsylvania, and Dream Menders.

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