It was recently decided in a 3-2 decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that the state’s congressional map had been gerrymandered. Meaning the voting districts were drawn in a way that favors one party over the other, in this case, the Republicans.
The first time I heard about gerrymandering it involved a Texas map that was eventually ruled acceptable with the exception of one district. Until then I believed all voting districts were created equal. Actually, until then I never really thought about my voting district. My responsibility was to vote. It never even occurred to me someone might be working behind the scenes to nullify that vote.
I was outraged by the idea. Manipulating votes for political gain that can’t possibly be constitutional? (It is.) But now that the whole thing has gotten closer and closer to home, beyond being disgusted, I am beginning to wonder has my vote been gerrymandered?
But before grabbing a pitchfork and descending on Harrisburg, I should probably gather a little background first.
Ok, what is a congressional map and how is it drafted?
Each state is divided into separate voting districts. These districts each get to send one representative to the U.S. House of Representatives. It is the representative’s responsibility to represent their constituents (you and me) on the national stage.
According to federal mandate voting districts must be:
2) Have equal populations
The drawing of these districts has been left in most cases, like in Pennsylvania, to the state legislatures.
These broad and vague guidelines have proven to be a too big a temptation to legislators and over the years they have taken the opportunity to tweak boundaries to give their party the advantage.
Lately legislatures all over the country have pushed these limits beyond what many consider acceptable, leading to cries of “gerrymander” and a slew of legal challenges. (The Supreme Court will be hearing two cases on the topic this term Gill v. Whitford, a challenge to Wisconsin’s voting map and Benisek v. Lamone a challenge to Maryland’s map. In the Wisconsin case the districts were drawn to favor the Republican majority, in the Maryland case to favor the Democrats).
So what exactly is Gerrymandering?
The PA seventh district considered one of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation is sometimes described as Goofy kicking Donald Duck.
According to the dictionary, gerrymandering is the manipulation of electoral boundaries so as to favor one party or class. Identifying a gerrymandered district is pretty easy to do – proving it is a whole other story. This is the task the federal courts have challenged plaintiffs with, recognizing it is possible for a district to be gerrymandered but (so far) finding no acceptable measure to prove it.
The Pennsylvania case, tried on state laws did not hold the plaintiffs to the same burden of proof accepting the evidence presented as evidence enough that Democratic votes had been compromised. (It was the contention of the plaintiffs that as many as five more seats could have gone to the Democrats if a neutral map was used.)
So, what does this mean for me?
Residents of West Chester live in one of two zip codes – 19380 and 19382. Residents in these zips codes live in one of three congressional districts – the PA Sixth, the PA Seventh and the PA 16th. All three are currently represented by Republicans.
The PA seventh District, described by the NYTs as looking like a “cartoon moose” is considered one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country.
Due to its contorted shape the Seventh District cradles West Chester but does not include it. It does include those living just south and west of the Borough.
The PA 16th District, affects primarily southern Chester County and Lancaster but does wrap up to grab our friends in Coatesville.
Which brings us to the PA Sixth District. This is the district in which most West Chester residents vote. The district is currently represented by Republican Ryan Costello.
How did we get here?
First the basics: Redistricting generally happens after each census and allotments are made for shifting populations.
Until the 1960s West Chester was part of the 9th district. In the 70s it became part of the 5th district. Where it remained until the 1990s when maps shifted again and West Chester was represented by the 16th district. During the 2002 redistricting West Chester ended up as part of the 6th district where it remains today.
The first map of questionable construction was drawn 2002 but you can see the effects of let’s call it, creative districting as early as the 1980s and 1990s. While there were hints of gerrymandered districts none went as far as the 2012 map. (This is the map recently rejected by the PA Supreme Court.)
While reviewing the shifting shapes, it’s hard to deny the map was manipulated. Congressional districts mid-way through the previous century were squat, compact shapes, over time those borders have twisted and frayed until now they are often contorted versions of their former selves. This especially noticeable in the southeastern corner of the state where there is a lot more political comingling.
In the 2012 election, the year the contested map took effect, Pennsylvanians registered 4,266,317 to 3,131,144, Democrat to Republican (I was going to round these numbers for the ease of reading but I thought in an article discussing individual votes this would be wrong.).
So let’s look at results.
According to Wikipedia: In the 2012 congressional elections, Democratic candidates won 50.5% of the total votes cast. However, only five of the state’s 18 Federal Representatives (27.78%) were Democrats.
According to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania official 2107 voter registration statistics, 4,032,442 residents are registered as Democrats and 33,223,524 are registered Republicans.
Ok, that doesn’t look good. But does all this mean as a Democrat living in West Chester I was positioned so my vote wouldn’t matter?
Hard truth: Did my vote count?
It’s hard to come up with a definitive answer as to whether or not individual votes were nullified.
There are roughly 20,000 people* living in the borough of West Chester and even if all of them voted for the democratic candidate in the seventh district, this would not have been enough on its own to flip the seat to the Democrat. And West Chester clearly does not vote for a single party, while the last couple elections have favored Democrats in local elections, West Chester has a long tradition of being fairly conservative in its voting. It elected its first Democratic mayor in 2009 after 17 straight years with a Republican at the helm.
*This number changes depending on which year is in question.
So, yes, my vote counted?
I’m not convinced. I’m sure it’s not as straight-forward as that. Maybe shifting West Chester in combination with another Democratic leaning area tipped the scales in a way that would favor the Republican or maybe it just alleviated the pressure turning what would likely be a Republican win anyway into one that was more of a sure thing.
I don’t know. I can’t come to a definitive answer my vote didn’t count but I do feel it wasn’t given its full weight. And this continues to be the challenge for lawyers and plaintiffs challenging maps across the country, how to prove definitively a citizen’s right to vote has been infringed?
Professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos from the Chicago school of law believes he is getting closer to a test that can answer this question. He stated recently on the law school’s website, “With this test, we found out empirically you can connect the party that is responsible for the redistricting with a big boost in favor of that party.”
In the meantime, a new Pennsylvania map is being redrawn. At last check the Republican’s had redrawn the map and submitted it for consideration. The districts are much more compact in keeping with the court’s directive but is it any fairer? I guess, only time will tell. To be truly fair, I think the process should be turned over to a neutral body.
Perhaps, a group of civic-minded eighth graders?
What do you think? Should we be concerned about gerrymandered districts or does this all feel overblown?
Plus: Want to get involved? The Sustainability Advisory Committee is still looking for members.