It seems like every other day a new threat to our democracy is uncovered and overwhelms the news cycle. Gerrymandering, however, is one such threat that has done damage for decades. Finally, it might be nearing its end, at least in Pennsylvania.
Gerrymandering is the practice of trying to garner a political advantage through the outlining and reshaping of voting districts. The practice gets its name from Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, whose 1812 redistricting of South Essex for the state senate election was ridiculed in a political cartoon. The caricature emphasized the odd shape of the districts by creating a sort of creature out of the state. Newspaper editors joked that the district looked like a salamander, and thus, gerrymander was born.
When successful, gerrymandering essentially lets politicians choose their constituents instead of the other way around. Gerrymandering can be done with partisan, racial or other intent. While it has no impact on the presidential vote (except the electoral college), it can substantially change the members of state legislatures, as well as the U.S. House of Representatives.
The impact of such gerrymandering is hyper-partisanship. This makes it so politicians from safe districts– districts that have been gerrymandered to favor the incumbent and his/her party–do not need to compromise. These politicians do not need to reach across the aisle because they do not fear the general elections. The only thing threatening politicians in safe districts is a challenger in their party’s primary, particularly a candidate on the fringes of the party, according to philly.com. In the end, the constituents are the ones who end up losing while gridlock skyrockets.
Moreover, gerrymandering weakens the power of the vote of citizens whose party did not create the district map. This is because they are packed into districts where their vote just widens the margin of support of a candidate who has already been forfeited the win. By forfeited the win, I mean the ruling party has ceded that district to the opposition in order to weaken the vote of their competition in a greater number of other districts. An additional consequence of extreme partisan gerrymandering in states is that Democrats will need to do substantially better than 51% of the votes for Congress in order to win 51% of the Congressional seats, which is necessary to take back the House.
In the case of Pennsylvania, which was roughly equally split between Democrats and Republicans in the 2016 election, Democrats won 46% of the votes but won only 5 of the 18 seats, or 28% of the Congressional seats. How was that possible? By consolidating left-leaning voters into a certain number of districts (called packing) and spreading out the rest into right-leaning districts (called cracking), they were able to diminish the power of Democratic votes. The district lines were so crazy that the congressional district in which I live (cd7) ( see the red coloration in the map on the left) was spread over five counties.
Below is a map of the old districts, as well as the new one created by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, via philly.com and courtesy of the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania.
The new maps were drawn to have contiguous boundaries, reduce the number of districts spread over multiple counties, and to weaken the partisan advantage of earlier maps. In fact, on Monday, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania published its new map which should be the lay of the land until after 2020 census. In short, the impact of this lawsuit has been huge and should create a unique opportunity to add 3-5 new Democratic representatives to Congress in 2018.
This all happened because of a lawsuit successfully challenging the congressional districts as unconstitutional because of extreme partisan gerrymandering. When appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Alito decided the court would not take up the case, which is an encouraging sign for future suits. While the impact of this ruling is huge, it only affected congressional districts and did not address the current partisan gerrymandering of Pennsylvania state house and senate districts.
Later this year, the Supreme Court will hear cases on gerrymandering in Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Maryland. It’s very likely these rulings won’t be reached in time to affect this year’s elections, but it suggests things are looking up for the future of our democracy. As gerrymandering has contributed to this intense partisanship, it follows that rulings that strike down partisan maps will promote compromise from our representatives, as well as an increased likelihood that they will more adequately represent the demographic and political makeup of their states.