Gerrymandering Primer

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In our Democracy, the voters choose their representatives, these reps each have an area (or district) that they represent.  The U.S. Constitution says that a census must count each state’s inhabitants every 10 years. This count is then used to determine (or draw) the districts, by allocating roughly the same number of voters to each district.  This is done for both federal and state house and senate offices.
Pennsylvania law puts the state legislature in charge of redrawing the district boundaries based on the census: a bill defining the new districts is passed by the House and Senate and then signed by the Governor. The majority party can re-draw the boundaries of voting districts so that their party stays in power.  The worst outcomes occur when one party controls both state houses and the governorship.
When the lines are being redrawn, sophisticated mapping programs and detailed voter data can identify exactly how to draw district lines so that the majority party stays in power. Counties and municipalities can be split into multiple districts, and more liberal urban areas can be combined with more conservative rural areas.  This process of redefining federal and state electoral boundaries in order to determine the outcome of races is called gerrymandering.  The outcome can lead to some very bizarrely shaped districts, for example, Pennsylvania’s 7th District, which was nicknamed, “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.”

The three main techniques used to obtain this advantage are “cracking”, “packing”, and a “sweetheart” gerrymander (also known as a “partisan handshake”).

• Sweetheart: the two parties work together to ensure that incumbents from both parties are re-elected.
• Cracking: the minority party’s voters are split up, distributing them into several districts so their votes are an irrelevant minority.
• Packing: putting an oversupply of the opposing party’s voters into a few districts.  The outcome of this technique is that the party in power is giving up that one district’s seat, but securing the safety of many others.

For decades, and until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional, racial gerrymandering diluted the power of minorities in urban areas, the South, and the Southwest. However, the Supreme Court has not declared political gerrymandering illegal, so cracking and packing persist.

Many analysts agree that gerrymandering protects incumbents, increases partisanship and affects campaign costs, particularly in the years before and after the census. That is why 21 states now have nonpartisan or bipartisan redistricting commissions. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently declared that the US Congressional Districts were unfairly gerrymandered, and imposed a newly drawn map for the 2018 election. This new (and temporary) map is an improvement (and MontCo is largely in one district). However, PA state assembly and senate districts were not impacted by that court decision and are still heavily gerrymandered.

In order to change the way that these maps are drawn, we have to have bills that are passed by PA house and senate prior to the 2020 census. Bills that were written to have a non-partisan commission redraw the maps (House Bill 722 and Senate Bill 22) were gutted in committee, and they now have little to do with the bills that were originally written. Communities across the state, including Collegeville, passed resolutions in support of this type of commission, but the Republicans were able to change the bills in committee.

If you want to make a change, please call your elected officials.

For more information about gerrymandering, click here.

For more information about the PA Supreme Court decision, click here.