LONDON GROVE >> At first glance, a map showing the legislative districts in Pennsylvania looks like the result of a pastry chef gone wild with his cookie cutters. There are no uniform shapes, no uniformity in the content, and the edges don’t conform to any geographical characteristic like rivers or mountain ranges. But in reality, the pattern is actually a reflection of the partisan method that a majority party in power uses to keep its strength and minimize the input of the minority party. It’s called gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is the manipulation of electoral districts for political gain, and it’s rampant in Pennsylvania.
To that end, a group called FairDistrictsPA, an offshoot of the League of Women Voters, has emerged to reform the system by establishing a new system for forming the method of drawing lines of districts served by legislators.
Last Tuesday, Lawrence Husick of FairDistrictsPA addressed an audience of more than 150 at Avon Grove High School, explaining the hazards of gerrymandering and proposing some solutions.
Wayne Braffman of Kennett Square, who serves as the municipal outreach chairman of the Chester County Branch of FairDistrictsPA, said he was pleased with the meeting, found support from the audience and even had people come to volunteer to help.
The main problem of gerrymandering, Braffman said, is the way districts are created. They are designed every 10 years – during the years of the U.S. Census – by the representatives of four caucuses in the state government: the Democratic representatives and senators and the Republican representatives and senators, and one more member. If they can’t agree on the fifth (because of parties) the state Supreme Court chooses one, and usually that reflects the political mix on the court. The Supreme Copurt in 2010 was Republican controlled, but the nexct time around, based on the current mix will be Democrat.
That method, Braffman said, reflects bizarre results. Inasmuch as the guidelines dictate that the districts must be contiguous and of fairly equal population size and not break up formal political borders like school districts, townships or counties, it should guarantee that people in the same neighborhoods and townships could have their votes heard.
But in the last round and years before that, the rules were broken.
Braffman gave two of the most egregious examples:
One is the 16th Congressional District, which for years was served by former U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts, and which the shows the changes in a large map. Through the years, the safe Republican area, which was mostly in southern Chester County, was gobbled up in part to ensure Republicans to the east had a better chance. Now, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, who serves the 16th District, is the representative of the western part of southern Chester County, most of Lancaster County and part of Berks County. But just to make sure that the remaining eastern area is safe for the Republicans, the designers threw the overwhelmingly Democratic Kendal Retirement Community precinct in Kennett Township into the safely Republican 16th District, so the 7th Congressional District would remain safely Republican for U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan.
That, he said, violates the guideline of not breaking up townships and school districts.
The other example he said, is the establishment of the 7th Congressional District held by Meehan, which contains Republican parts of five carefully carved counties, including Delaware, Chester, Montgomery, Berks and Lancaster.
What is worse, Braffman said, is that in primary races where only people registered in that party can vote, the moderate voices of the Independents are left out of the political process, leading to the victories of the more extreme candidates. And as time goes by, with the growth of information by social media, he said, the designers of the districts will be able to know even more about the demographics of voters and more exactly carve out districts that suit their desires for voters to make election victories.
The main solution for reform proposed by FairDfistricsPA is the formation of a committee to define districts that contains four Republicans, four Democrats and three independents who are absolutely unbiased. When they go into the process, the outcome must be approved by seven members.
“If the current system remains in effect in 2020, it will become more toxic with decisions made by a few with no compromises on important issues like education,” Braffman said.
For reform to happen before 2020, Husick proposed four actions: organizing, education, advocating, and donating money.
Braffman said in his capacity as outreach chairman, he is seeking to spread the word on gerrymandering and get resolutions from each of the 72 municipalities in Chester County that they support the two reform bills currently in the state Legislature: a House bill in process and Senate Bill 22. So far, he said, he has obtained positive support from 44 municipalities.
Bob Ketcham of the OxGrove Democrats, who hosted the meeting, said he is optimistic reform can be achieved. However, he added that it will take time. The House bill and Senate Bill 22 must both be passed two years in a row, and then be voted on by the population of Pennsylvania because it would change the state’s Constitution. He added that the speaker, Husick, said there is still enough time to get this done in time for the 2022 election.
With regard to the meeting, he said he suspected many of those in attendance had an idea of what gerrymandering is, but it was clarified by the talk. He also said he was happy with the turnout.
“It’s nice to have a non-partisan event. I’m sure there were people there who were both Republican and Democrat,” he said.