“The Gerry-Mander:” First printed in March 1812, this political cartoon was drawn in reaction to the state senate electoral districts drawn by the Massachusetts legislature to favour the Democratic-Republican Party candidates of Governor Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists. Federalists’ newspapers editors and others at the time likened the district shape to a salamander, and the word gerrymander was a blend of that word and Governor Gerry’s last name.
by Chris Lee
Tea Party members say citizens need to take back the country from a government conspiracy. This could be the one thing all Americans agree upon.
Naming the conspiracy is another matter. This year, call it redistricting or reapportionment, and when the process is abused, it is called gerrymandering. Every election after the U.S. Census has counted everyone, a state must redraw the boundaries for each legislator and for the U.S. Congress. 2011 is that year.
In Pennsylvania, the ability to wipe out the voting power of entire segments of the population based on where they live has risen to an art form.
“People moving to Pennsylvania from other states are dumbfounded that that we sit back and take it and that we’re not up in arms at the level of corruption,” Barry Kauffman, Executive Director of Common Cause PA told Voices. “Redistricting has been degraded into an incumbent protection tool, and in other cases, a tool used by the legislative leadership in punishing members. The system is broken.”
Graphics provided by Democracy Rising PA
These graphics of State House District 161 in Delaware County, PA, depict how the district was reapportioned between 1992 and 2002.
‘Packing and Cracking’
Pennsylvania redraws election districts boundaries for the U.S. Congress and the state General Assembly every 10 years in order to satisfy court mandates that districts at each level have equal population.
The General Assembly in Harrisburg decides the boundaries for Congressional districts. But the top four minority and majority leaders of the General Assembly make up the Reapportionment Commission that decides the boundaries for state house and senate districts with the help of a fifth member they appoint as a tie-breaker.
The entire process is done without any requirement for public disclosure until the final plan is put on public view for 30 days before its passage.
It sounds simple, but like most things involving power, it quickly gets complicated.
“You can take a particular population like city dwellers or suburbanites and you can unify them into a district so they have voting strength or you can split them up so they have no strength,” Pennsylvania League of Women Voters Redistricting Specialist Lora Lavin told Voices. “It’s called packing and cracking.”
“The only time you’ll have an opportunity for a contested election would be in the primary,” continued Lavin, “and in primaries usually the people who vote are the extreme partisans, the dedicated Democrats and the dedicated Republicans.”
“Gerrymandering has a tendency to weaken various community voices in government. To the extent where it occurs, it is not overall healthy for democracy,” explained nationally-recognized political analyst Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.
Common Cause’s Kauffman said that the intent to create “safe” districts is clear.
He described the time that one of the people involved in redistricting came to Common Cause and explained the process smugly: “We get a map of Pennsylvania. The four legislative caucuses divide the state into five areas. The Democrats get Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and some suburbs. The Republicans get everything else and we agree to fight over the few areas left that are competitive. Then there are five staff teams created to create safe districts for the legislators. First we plot the home of every legislator. If there is a potential strong opponent, we plot their home. Then we look at party registration and voting trends of last 10 years, and then we build a safe district.”
Over time, groups of citizens have organized to stop the corruption.
“If legislators don’t believe that their actions can draw competition, they are more likely to heed the desires of special interests than their constituents,” said Timothy Potts, Executive Director of the reform advocacy group Democracy Rising.
Not everybody sees a problem. Republican State Sen. Jake Corman, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee who serves on the Senate State Government Committee that will take the lead in the legislation to redistrict Pennsylvania’s Congressional districts, disputes that a majority of the state’s districts are safe for incumbents.
“I’m sort of amused by the effort to gerrymander,” Corman told Voices. “Ultimately most of these legislative districts are very competitive, at least in the primaries. The voters have a way of having the last say, as they should.”
He said technology is playing a role.
“With the availability of technology and information, divvying up the state into safe districts just can’t happen anymore,” said Corman.
Fellow Republican legislator Kerry Benninghoff agreed.
“Sometimes we perceive problems that are not necessarily there. I think the public has had a dramatic impact in changing the General Assembly strictly by their voting,” he said. “If people feel their district has been gerrymandered and they’re disenfranchised, they’ll express it at the polls.”
But Terry Madonna disagreed strongly.
“Redistricting is a partisan and political activity,” Madonna said. “With the computer programs they have they can get down to the precinct level as they draw these boundary lines. It destroys competition, so the office holder can be completely safe and can act in disregard to the will of his or her constituents…so they can be responsive to special interests and their own ideology.”
According to Potts, the strategy of legislators doing the gerrymandering in Harrisburg so far is to ignore it or claim it is no worse than anywhere else.
“People care about their families and their lives,” Madonna said. “The process itself will go largely unremarked upon by the general public. That’s not good.”
Silencing Community Voices
“Gerrymandering is largely aimed at enhancing one party’s strength in the state legislature and in Congress,” Madonna explained. “It often has little to do with communities of interest within a district or putting like-minded people together.”
State College and the Centre Region are one example of a cracked and cut-up community. As a regional economic power in the knowledge industry and the home of a major state university, this fast-growing area has been carved up so that it is the home of not one single elected state or United States representative.
For the state House of Representatives, State College is cut in half, with College Avenue serving as the boundary between the 171st district represented by Republican Kerry Benninghoff of Bellefonte and the 77th district represented by Democrat Scott Conklin of Philipsburg.
“I don’t think the Centre Region gets any less representation by having two representatives instead of only one,” Benninghoff told Voices. “But one of the concerns of this year’s process is can we put State College back together?” he admitted.
For Congress, State College is on the east fringe of Pennsylvania’s immense Fifth District which extends north to the New York state border and west almost to the Ohio border. The fifth district was represented for years by Republican John Peterson of Oil City, 150 miles from State College, and is now represented by Republican Glenn Thompson of Howard, 25 miles from State College. In the state senate, State College is represented by Republican Jake Corman, who lives in Bellefonte. The area is represented by a Republican despite the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans 43 percent to 39 percent according to Centre County’s voter registration records.
But a much more egregious example of gerrymandering is Monroe County on the New Jersey border in northeast Pennsylvania.
In 1991, reports Potts, a consensus was building among residents in the fast-growing county for property tax reform due to the cost of building new schools.
“The leadership in Harrisburg didn’t want to create a hotbed of people advocating what they didn’t want to do,” Potts explained. “So they sliced Monroe County up so no senator would have property tax as their top priority because most of their senatorial districts were in other counties where property tax reform wasn’t such an issue.”
Today, six state senators have constituents in Monroe County but none of the six live in Monroe County, and the legislature made Monroe County the only home county of a gambling casino that had to share its tax revenue with surrounding counties, costing Monroe County $6 million a year.
“The problem is none of our senators need Monroe County to be elected,” said Merlyn Clarke, professor emeritus at East Stroudsburg University and former political science department head, in a news story in the Pocono Record in February 2009.
The Record article quotes former State Rep. Kelly Lewis of Monroe County as saying, “The bill … destroyed school property tax reform…and the funding provision to share fifth-class county proceeds with contiguous counties is corruption personified.”
Set the Legislative Agenda
“Major donations have a strong correlation with things in Harrisburg,” said Kauffman. “For example, the gambling industry hired every lobbyist in town and dominated the legislative process for a very long time. Despite the other interests of Pennsylvanians, the gambling issue moved to the front and passed quickly. Marcellus Shale gas companies gave enormous amounts of money to legislators and have pretty much had their way in the legislative process.”
Pennsylvania has the dubious distinction of being the only shale gas state in the nation that doesn’t have a severance tax on gas, at a time when the state is struggling to balance its budget.
“The organ groups—lung, heart, diabetes—tell me their issues never get on the front burner,” Kauffman told Voices. “They can’t hire the kind of permanent lobbyist that the hospital association and the trial lawyers and the insurance industry can.” Federal lobbyists delivered 28 million new health insurance customers through healthcare reform legislation, he said, instead of a single payer system that would benefit individuals. (Unprecedented citizen advocacy for single payer at the state level also fell short last year in the face of professional lobbyists.)
Democracy Rising’s Potts agreed.
“You’re not likely to get an honest approach to the problems facing Harrisburg,” he said. “It’s going to be filtered through the views of the lobbyists, rather than the needs of the citizens.”
Potts also decries the notion that voters should re-elect corrupt politicians with seniority because they will “bring home the bacon.”
“If you’re going to feel warm and fuzzy about a $50,000 grant to your community from your generous legislator while he is raiding the pension system and approving debt of billions of dollars that is going to cost you a whole lot more, then you’re being played for a sucker,” he snorted.
Ahead of the
In Pennsylvania the control of the General Assembly and the governorship is now in the hands of one party, the Republican Party, so the potential for redistricting abuse is even greater.
“With gerrymandering the voice of opposition isn’t heard to the point where it makes a difference,” Democratic Rep. Conklin told Voices. “It makes it very easy to run an agenda through—mostly a political agenda and not a people-driven agenda.”
“My district is one of the most competitive and I look at all sides to see what’s best for my communities,” said Conklin. “In gerrymandered districts, legislators no longer have to think outside the box or look at both sides of the issue; they only look at the party line – to be in line with what the party wants. That’s where government becomes the government of the party and not of the people.”
Kauffman sees the phenomenon statewide.
“Where one party is guaranteed to win in the general election—in the southeast and southwest for the Democrats and in the central area of the state for the Republicans—that means that the real election becomes the primary,” he explained. “If the primary is the final election, you are guaranteed very liberal and very conservative legislators. They come to Harrisburg from the extreme wings of their parties, making it very difficult to govern from the center. Issues never come to a vote; they don’t even get debated.”
“Nobody is trying to work the middle,” agreed Potts.
Another lever of power is the fact that redistricting of the General Assembly is done only by the five-member Reapportionment Commission and is not subject to a vote by the legislature itself.
“This concentrates enormous power to reward or punish individual members of their caucus, which is where innovations come from, from the rank and file legislators,” said League of Women Voters’ Lavin. “If caucus members are pushing for legislation not favored by the leadership, the leadership can punish them by gerrymandering them out of their district or pitting them against another member of the caucus.”
Rep. Scott Conklin
Reformers agree a non-partisan independent commission should do the redistricting at all electoral levels in Pennsylvania.
“You can come up with a body of people that doesn’t have a personal vested interest in the outcome, which is what we have now,” said Lavin.
The published position of the League—and Common Cause as well—calls for action by the legislature to:
-Establish an independent redistricting commission, independent of elected officials invested in the outcome, with professional demographers and without elected and party officials serving as members or staff. The state of Iowa provides an excellent model for this reform.
-Ban corrupting data. Prohibit data revealing party registration numbers of any political subdivision, voting history of any subdivision or location of the residence of an elected official or any other person.
-Enforce strict compliance with constitutional standards.
-Prohibit unnecessary division of political subdivisions.
-Ensure standards for compactness and contiguity are honored.
-Include Congressional Redistricting. The redrawing of congressional district boundaries also should be assigned to the Independent Redistricting Commission.
“I do believe you could get less political commissioners,” agreed Benninghoff. “Juries showed me time and time again when I was coroner that six lay people could make a good decision.”
The League of Women Voters did try to get the legislature to authorize a referendum for a constitutional amendment to create a non-partisan commission, but Benninghoff said legislative leaders pulled the bill from the calendar.
“It is fairly certain the leaders won’t let reform happen,” said Potts. “We simply have to have a constitutional convention. In a January 2010 Franklin and Marshall poll by Terry Madonna, 75 percent of those polled favored having a constitutional convention. Voters look at the lack of improvement in the legislature and say, ‘We have to take this out of the hands of the legislators because they can’t do it.’”
Rep. Kerry Benninghoff
But Corman prefers the present Reapportionment Commission to the Iowa plan, saying, “I haven’t heard another plan that’s any better. In the Iowa plan, the legislature can throw out the results if they choose. I don’t like that.”
Though both Republicans representing State College – Sen. Corman and Rep. Benninghoff—have publicly endorsed the idea of an independent commission doing the redistricting, they are optimistic that legislators will use the present system better this year than in the past.
“Things have changed in Harrisburg,” Corman told Voices. “I don’t think divvying up the state [between incumbents of both parties] will be a consideration. Harrisburg is a lot different from when I got there in 1998.”
He noted that Senator Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a Republican from Chester and Delaware Counties and a member of the five-person Reapportionment Commission, has promised an open process with many hearings and a Web site. (Sen. Pileggi did not respond to a request for an interview with Voices).
Kauffman noted that the Iowa program does have one element that could be adopted by the Reapportionment Commission.
“There are very powerful computer programs that make the job of redistricting easy. The state of Iowa puts its program on line for any citizen to use and make their own plan,” he said. “The Reapportionment Commission in Harrisburg can choose to do this with the program they will use.”
“In Harrisburg there’s a much better movement towards greater transparency, and with technology people know more of what’s going on with their elected officials,” agreed Benninghoff, “and that should make this process less political.”
Others are less optimistic.
“Pennsylvania politics is pretty ruthless and pretty much anti-reform,” observed Madonna, “so I’m not averse to diminishing some of the power of the politicians because they’ve been anti-reform on so many other areas—ethics, gifts, lobbying. The track record of the legislature is slightly short of appalling.”
With one party in control of both houses of the assembly and the governor’s seat, there is understandable skepticism in the minority party as well.
“There’s going to be a lot of strategy meetings that you and I will not be invited to,” said Rep. Conklin, a Democrat. “There’s no requirement to go public until 30 days before the final plan is approved.”
Like Potts, Conklin also advocated a convention.
“Before the next redistricting (in 2021), I’ll be trying for a limited constitutional convention to make government more transparent and more fair to the people,” he said.
Sorting through the rhetoric
Reform has proved elusive, particularly since it has to be initiated by those owing their position to the current system. So the path of the reformer is beset on all sides by the political rhetoric of those invested in the present process.
“People are so desperate to maintain their own advantage and not give others a chance,” said Kauffman. “We really do need to teach better analytic thinking in our schools so people can see through their arguments.”
One rhetorical argument against reform is that the present Reapportionment Commission is bi-partisan, since it has both Democratic and Republican members, and it is accountable because they are elected legislators.
But at least one activist calls the bi-partisanship a red herring.
“It’s not Republicans versus Democrats. It’s the major parties versus the voters,” said Kauffman, noting that both parties work together to split up the state into districts safe for incumbents of both parties.
And with redrawing the Congressional districts redistricting in the hands of the legislature and the governor, both Republican, that process is not likely to be bi-partisan, according to at least two observers.
“The legislature’s redistricting the Congressional seats is a very political process,” said Kauffman. “Watch how much congressmen donate to legislators in this election cycle if you have any doubt.”
“The state legislature’s record on redistricting is one of gerrymandering and partisanship,” Madonna stated flatly. “I do not expect to see any change in the process in our state because the party in power can pretty much decide. Why would they give up the power?”
But those doing the redistricting are accountable, because they are elected by the people of their home districts, right?
“The legislative leaders are not accountable to the citizens of Pennsylvania,” said Potts. “They’re elected in secret and they operate in secret. Most of Pennsylvania cannot vote for the legislative leaders.”
Another argument against reform is that people just don’t care about the process. Kauffman quotes one legislator saying: “I’ve never gotten a single call from a constituent asking me to change the redistricting process.”
“Sure,” agrees Kauffman, “but he’s also never gotten a call not to steal the office computers. There are certain levels of expectation that government officials will do what is ethical and responsible.”
Another argument against reform is that the Pennsylvania Constitution already calls for compact and contiguous districts without unnecessarily splitting communities, and there is no need for anything other than enforcing the constitution as it stands.
“Yes, that is already in the constitution,” agreed Potts, “but our Supreme Court has decided to ignore the constitution out of deference of the legislature, even though the whole point of having a court is to protect people from the excesses of legislature. The court did the same thing on the pay raise, on slots, on gerrymandering and on unvouchered expenses.”
Burn Me Twice, Shame on Me
Will the legislature and the legislative leaders change their habits this time in the 2011 reapportionment process to allow citizen input and to prevent gerrymandering? Will Pennsylvania see a new dawn of democracy with more competitive electoral districts electing more moderate legislators representing their citizens more than lobbyists and party ideology?
“The cure for bad politics is good citizenship,” says Potts. “People have to insist and make this a voting issue. They have to say ‘Fix this or I’m not voting for you.’”
In ancient times, King Solomon chose to give the baby to the mother who would lose it rather than see it cut in two. Will our legislators choose to risk competitive elections rather than see our communities split in two and silenced?
The answers will unfold in Harrisburg in the next few months.
Christopher Lee is the former chairman of the Centre Region Council of Governments, the Centre Regional Planning Commission and the Centre Region MPO, and of Harris Township.