Gerrymandering: Cheating the American Voter
by Cathleen McGowan
Ten-year census data is so important for our political system. In 2021, after the census is completed, each state will re-draw district lines for state and national governments. These lines will stay for ten years. Rigging this process through gerrymandering is a real threat.
Four years ago, when I first became interested in ending gerrymandering, I have to admit I didn’t understand exactly what it was. It seemed complicated: drawing district lines using the 10-year census data, comprehending terms like “cracking” and “packing,” and even running into something about cartoons. I got bogged down in the details. And to be honest, I’m still not sure I could give a presentation on the fly without hints from those who can. But what I do know is the big picture. Gerrymandering makes a democracy hard to keep. It is wrong in America. It is a power grab. Gerrymandering is cheating.
What gerrymandering does is to create “safe” districts, where the current office holders cannot be voted out. Basically, it silences the voice of the voters. This is not how to keep a democratic republic. This is how to deteriorate into a system that more closely resembles feudalism, where an intrenched class of aristocrats wields all the power.
Both Democrats and Republicans have been guilty of gerrymandering. The party in power draws the district lines in order to stay in power, no matter whom they run for office. This way, the parties themselves can drive out their dissidents, thus making the party more rigid in its policies and often more extreme in those policies. After all, why bother to appeal to what voters want when you can rig the system for ten years? As a result, the needs and views of us, the voters, get largely ignored in favor of large donors to the party. This is not what my ancestors, my relatives, my friends, and my husband in the armed services fought for.
Currently in Pennsylvania, after a 2018 court case ruling (League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania), our federal congressional districts look very much like what the state looks like demographically. Since the 2011 district lines were drawn, with the aid of sophisticated computer models that intentionally assist gerrymandering, Pennsylvania had one of the worse partisan gerrymandered district maps in the country. It was so bad that if you turned some of the districts into jigsaw puzzle pieces, they would break in half because some of the corridors linking far-apart constituent areas were so thin. The League of Women Voters, as well as individuals from the districts, brought the case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, claiming that this congressional district map violated the state constitution’s guidelines on district creation. The court agreed and told the legislature to redraw the lines or the court would. The legislature, instead of redrawing district lines, kicked up dust about impeaching justices. So, the court redrew the lines, making them fair for the first time in seven years, just in time for the 2018 and 2020 elections.
But we don’t know if they will stay that way when they are redrawn in 2021. And it’s bad news for voters that the length of time for completing the 2020 census has been shortened. It is now too late to fill out the census, meaning that many people won’t be counted.
In Pennsylvania, the district lines are now drawn by five people: two Democrats, two Republicans, and another person, whom those four decide upon. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court appoints the fifth person if those four cannot agree. In 2011, the Republicans had the majority on this five-person panel. In 2021, the Democrats will likely have control of this panel. There are now bills in the Pennsylvania state house to make this redistricting process more transparent.
What we need to stop the gerrymandering cycle is for states to create independent commissions. Arizona and California have already done so. Independent commissions can give voice not only to Republicans and Democrats, but also to independents and third parties. In Pennsylvania, although the bills to create a commission had widespread bi-partisan support, the state’s House Republicans let them die.
You can fight against gerrymandering by getting involved with groups such as the League of Women Voters, FairVote, and the Public Mapping Project. Find out where your candidates stand on making redistricting fair. Our district lines are the key to everything that happens in politics. Everything. And politics affects everything else. That power should be with the voters.
Photo by Frank McKenna (San Diego CA) @frankiefoto.