Why you should care
Because manipulating maps affects who runs your state — and the nation.
They were fighting words, and last month Pennsylvania Democrat Lisa Boscola, a state senator, delivered them from the steps of the capitol in Harrisburg, where a rally was held in support of two bills designed to take the politics out of redistricting: “These bills are a way to slay the gerrymander once and for all.”
Her metaphor was an allusion to a 19th-century cartoon that depicted rigged election districts in Massachusetts as a twisting salamander swallowing the rest of the state. In Pennsylvania, though, the better mythological comparison might be the hydra. Each time reformers have tried to fix district stacking, the challenges have multiplied, just as Hercules watched the hydra sprout new heads each time he chopped one off. Now, though, a trifecta of political realities has lined up that could finally fell the gerrymander beast.
When Karl Rove wrote his political opus on redistricting, it included the prescient line “he who controls redistricting can control Congress.”
But first, a look at the national scene: Redistricting reform groups have sprung up everywhere from Minnesota to Michigan to Maryland. It’s still early days, but most of those efforts appear to be quixotic. After all, it’s tough to convince the parties in power to risk losing their majorities by drawing more competitive battle lines following every decennial national census. Survival instinct is a powerful motivator, suggests Keegan Gibson, the former managing editor of PoliticsPA. “Before you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you’re an incumbent first,” he says. “You’re asking people whose job depends on state legislative districts to act in a way that disadvantages them.” It’s why Illinois, a blue state, has ignored redistricting efforts by its Republican governor, while Virginia, with its red statehouse, also drags its feet.
The difference in Pennsylvania? Both sides of the aisle, it seems, have at least some incentive to play ball. The situation will come to a head in 2020. Democrats, who have a majority on the state Supreme Court, will hold the tie-breaking vote in redrawing the lines of districts that make up the state legislature. Meanwhile, Republican legislative majorities control the redistricting process for federal seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. To cap it all, a long-standing conservative promise to shrink the state legislature — from 203 members to 151 — would hurt Republicans if they don’t make the first move on redistricting reform. As Carol Kuniholm, director of Fair Districts PA, puts it: “Do you honestly want to take 50 seats out of the House, and it’s the Democrats redrawing the maps?”
Everyone has a card to play, which is why a grand bargain could possibly be struck: Democrats giving up their state advantage, Republicans giving up their federal one and the districts across the state turning into level playing fields. Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf already is supporting redistricting reform in his reelection campaign. Two bills that would turn state redistricting over to a nonpartisan panel have received dozens of bipartisan cosponsors in the state House and Senate. “We keep gathering pieces to this little puzzle,” Kuniholm says. She notes that a federal lawsuit is also being considered, following a recent ruling that showed North Carolina was unconstitutionally gerrymandered.
And Kuniholm’s organization is building a grassroots groundswell too. Fair Districts PA has organized 200 public sessions and attracted more than 10,000 people since January, with thousands following the nonprofit by email and Facebook. “They’re packing auditoriums full of people who have never been politically active before,” says Gibson. “It’s an uphill fight … but they’re following the road map needed to make this happen.”
That would be a huge shift for Pennsylvania. The state’s congressional districts are routinely described as some of the most gerrymandered in the nation. Locals lampoon the most bizarre — the 7th, in the western suburbs of Philadelphia — as “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.” Consider that, in 2010, when Karl Rove wrote his political opus on redistricting in the Wall Street Journal, it included the prescient line “he who controls redistricting can control Congress,” and one of his prime examples was how Pennsylvania Republicans had redrawn lines to turn an 11–10 Republican-Democrat split in districts based on the 1990 census into a 12–7 advantage following the 2000 census. Today, the conservative edge is even greater: 13–5 in favor of Republicans. As for the state legislature, the split is 121–82 in the House and 34–16 in the Senate. And yet Trump’s margin of victory in the last presidential election was a mere 44,292 votes out of six million cast, suggesting that the state is much more evenly divided politically than its legislature or congressional delegation would indicate.
And what happens in Pennsylvania matters nationally. Using data from the past three federal election cycles, the Brennan Center for Justice found that gerrymandering in just a few battleground states — including Pennsylvania — accounted for as many as 17 seats in the Republicans’ 23-seat majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Which is why activists are trying to make legislators feel the heat. When Kuniholm started Fair Districts PA in 2015, a nonpartisan offshoot of the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters, she was told the state was “impossible” because it had “entrenched two-party systems” and no mechanism to put the issue in front of voters without going through the legislature. But when 100 people gathered on a hot night last August to hear more about the issue, Kuniholm started seeing excitement around the wonky issue — excitement that built after last year’s presidential election and swelled when 800 people gathered into a Philadelphia church in January. “People have said they thought that democracy worked on autopilot — that it kicked along and worked as expected. Now we know it’s not true. If we don’t engage … we can be shut out of the process and lose our voice.”
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