Pennsylvania’s Congressional Redistricting – Who Wins? Who Loses?

Pennsylvania’s congressional districts may shortly be redistricted by the Republocrats in Harrisburg. In January 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the 2011 gerrymandering of the federal congressional districts violates the state constitution. (PDF of court ruling) The lawsuit was brought against the State by Fair Districts PA (a wing of the League of Women Voters) and a small group of registered Democrats living throughout Pennsylvania. The Democratic-controlled court gave the Republican-controlled state legislature until February 15th to come to an agreement with Democrat Governor Wolf – here is a link to the current GOP proposal (or scroll down) – otherwise the court threatens to redistrict the state itself.

Those who stand to gain from the ruling and current proposal, in my opinion, include local communities to some extent, and alternative political parties (such as the Libertarian Party of Pennsylvania). However, most of all, it will benefit the Democrat ruling elite, although the Republicans will still be helped by their newly proposed boundaries. The Republicans gerrymandered the state badly in their own favor back in 2011. A quick definition of gerrymandering:

Gerrymandering is a practice of the ruling elite to divide a geographic area into voting districts so as to give unfair advantage to one party or certain individuals in elections, named after the dishonorable Governor Elbridge Gerry who used this tactic in 1812 by making a district look like a salamander, hence Gerry-mander. In all its forms, gerrymandering typically leads to less competition and less choice in all electoral districts, increases incumbent retention, and empowers the ruling regimes to silence voter discontent at the ballot box.

Typically, gerrymandering is accomplished by “cracking” or “packing” although there are other tactics too. “Cracking” occurs when a locality or area that may tend to vote for the opposing party is split up into multiple district to destroy its influence on an election. “Packing” is when the party in power purposely packs its opposing parties voters into one district, typically so the party in power can more easily win the surrounding districts.

For instance, Pennsylvania’s 15th congressional district where I ran as an independent for US Congress in 2010 was only slightly gerrymandered. See the image to the right. Most of the population was in three cities – Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton – which tended to vote Democratic. The suburban and rural areas tended to vote Republican. One could drive across the district in about 30 minutes.

In 2011, the Republicans “cracked” the district by splitting the Easton vicinity and part of the Bethlehem vicinity off into a long snake that stretched all the way to Scranton – this became the new 17th congressional district. To drive from one end of the district to the other went from 30 minutes to about 90 minutes. The incumbent Congress critter, Mr. Matthew Cartwright (D), has easily won every election with 60% in 2012, 57% in 2014, and 54% in 2016. No independent or third party has even been on the ballot. The dividing line was close to the middle of the former 15th district, several miles from where I resided. See the light blue area marked with a 17 in the map below the eastern area.

In the 15th district, in 2011 the Republicans “packed” the district with the rural region to the west of Allentown all the way to Hershey to protect the incumbent Republican, Mr. Charles Dent. See the map above. Similar to the 17th district, driving from one end of the district also went from about 30 minutes to 90 minutes. After winning 54% of the vote in 2010, Dent won the 2012 election with 57%, 2014 with 100% (totally unopposed), and 2016 with 58%. Only in 2016 was he opposed by any third party – the valiant Libertarian Paul Rizzo (whom, in full disclosure, I happily volunteered for) who ran a short 2-month campaign and received about 4%.

Perhaps the worst gerrymander in Pennsylvania currently is the 7th congressional district, which looks like a Rorschach test (map below). In one place, the district is connected only by a property that is currently a surf n’ turf restaurant. In another, it is connected only by a medical facility.  (source, page 50/139)

Additional real difficulties of gerrymandering for independents and third party candidates include:

  • Obtaining ballot access – third party congressional candidates are typically need to gather 5000-7000 signatures to be assured of a place on the ballot, far more than the amount the Republocrats need for their taxpayer-funded closed primary. When the population centers are fractured, it is much harder to acquire valid signatures at post offices, supermarkets, parades and community events as not everyone is in the district.
  • Breaking apart of local communities where word of mouth can help sway voters. ie in the example above, it is much more common for someone from Easton to have friends and family in Bethlehem and Allentown area than it would be to have contacts in Scranton.
  • Media fragmentation – radio, newspaper, TV, debates and other sources of advertising are much more costly and disproportionately difficult for independents to manage. Plus the reach of many media companies into the district itself is fractured, making their use less effective at getting out a campaign’s message or even that the independent’s candidacy exists.
  • Logistically, it is far easier for the Republocrats to cover events with paid surrogates and staffing than for an independent candidate to spend hours every day traversing the district from event to event.

For those interested in learning more, Dr. Thomas DiLorenzo talks about gerrymandering and effects on incumbents’ re-election around the 41:00 mark in his talk “The Theory of Political Entrepreneurship” below from 2011.

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