June 29, 2017 – By Suzanne M. Broughton

Gerrymandering is not new. It started in 1812 when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry approved a bill that drew districts favoring his party. A political cartoonist thought the map looked like a salamander, hence the term Gerrymander. Both parties do it. Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin are Gerrymandered by Republicans. Maryland and Illinois are Gerrymandered by Democrats.

There are several ways to Gerrymander. If a state loses a Congressional seat, district boundaries can be drawn to set up a primary contest between two incumbents, as was done in Congressional District 12 here in Western Pennsylvania in both 2001 and 2011. Districts can be drawn to pack voters of the minority party into one district, leaving several other districts to the majority party. Or a group of minority party voters can be stranded in a majority party district.

Gerrymandering was made much more precise in the 2011 redistricting by recently developed computer methods. Data mining showed the map-makers past election patterns, and the party registration plus many personal characteristics of individual voters. Very precise computer mapping techniques allowed them to draw districts – often having grotesque shapes – that would group voters according to this data to produce the desired election outcome.

Republicans have been the most adept at this process. To be able to do so, they have spent a lot of money to control the state legislatures that do the redistricting. Between the 2001 and the 2011 redistricting, Republicans developed REDistricting MAjority Project 2010 (REDMAP2010) – a scheme to gain control of many state legislatures that the Democrats had controlled by a small margin of seats. By targeting a few, carefully selected districts in a state’s legislature with intense, well-financed campaigns before the 2010 state elections, Republicans were able to flip enough of those seats to gain control. REDMAP2010 is described in detail in David Daley’s recent book Ratf**ked.

In Pennsylvania, redistricting is done by two different processes. Ordinary legislative procedure is used to redistrict for the U.S. House of Representatives. Maps are developed by the majority party and attached to a bill that is passed by the legislature and signed by the governor.

The Pennsylvania Constitution specifies a different process for redistricting the state legislature. A five-person commission is formed, containing four senate and house majority and minority leaders plus a fifth person that the four agree on, or he or she may be chosen by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Pennsylvania Constitution specifies that districts must be compact, contiguous and split as few municipalities as possible – conditions that are rarely honored by the commission. Both systems produce Gerrymandered maps.

Fair Districts PA, a project of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and Common Cause, supported by 26 additional organizations, would like to scrap both those systems. A new system would have all the maps drawn by an independent commission of 11 voters: 4 registered with each major party and 3 registered as independents or with other parties. The commission could not include office holders, their spouses, lobbyists, or paid staff & officers of political parties. The commission could not use the address of any individual, political affiliation of voters, or previous election results. It would hold public hearings, make publicly available the information being used to draft the maps – probably on the Internet – and require at least one vote from each of the three groups to approve the maps.

This proposal has been introduced in the legislature as Senate Bill 22 and (identical) House Bill 722. The House bill has 95 co-sponsors. Since these bills will amend the Pennsylvania Constitution, one must pass in both the 2017-18 and 2019-20 legislative sessions and be approved by voters in a referendum.

You can find more information at www.fairdistrictspa.com. Fair Districts PA urges readers to join the organization at the website, by clicking on the JOIN US button, and to contact their legislators to support these bills.

Suzanne M Broughton is a past president of the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh and is currently a member of the Fair Districts PA speakers team.