Group takes aim at gerrymandering in Pennsylvania

Fair Districts PA organizers urged members of the Parkwood Civic Association to get involved to restore legislative districts that reflect the political makeup of the state.

This graphic originally published by the Washington Post and recirculated by Fair Districts PA shows the changing boundaries of Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District from 1952 to 2013. SOURCE: FAIR DISTRICTS PA

Pennsylvania has almost 8.5 million registered voters, 48 percent of whom are Democrats, and 38 percent Republicans.

Yet, Republicans hold strong majorities in the state House of Representatives, 121 to 82, and in the state Senate, 34 to 16. Similarly, 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are Republicans, while just five are Democrats.

A new nonprofit organization, Fair Districts PA, doesn’t think those numbers add up to an equitable representation of the state’s voters. It says high-tech gerrymandering is to blame. On May 17, Fair Districts PA organizers urged members of the Parkwood Civic Association to get involved in the effort to restore legislative districts that reflect the political makeup of the state.

“Gerrymandering is bad no matter which political party you’re in,” Fair Districts volunteer Christina Moretti said.

People who are interested in the cause can join the new Northeast Fair District PA working group that will meet on the third Tuesday of each month starting June 23 at Circle of Hope Church, 2007 Frankford Ave., at 7 p.m. Folks may also visit fairdistrictspa.com or email to christinafairdistricts@gmail.com

The term gerrymandering originated in 1812, when the Massachusetts Senate redrew district boundaries to favor members of Gov. Elbridge Gerry’s Democratic-Republican party. The Boston Gazette reported the irregular, elongated and twisting shape of one of the newly created districts resembled a salamander. The newspaper coined the term Gerrymander, and it stuck.

In general, the term refers to the practice of redrawing district boundaries to dilute the voting power of an opposing party or to concentrate the opposing party’s voters into one district to reduce their voting power in other districts.

According to literature circulated by the organization, Pennsylvania is considered one of the most gerrymandered states in the country. A classic example is the state’s 7th Congressional District in Philadelphia’s western suburbs.

Between 1962 and 2013, the district was repeatedly modified as it evolved from a compact territory covering portions of western Delaware, Chester and Montgomery counties to today’s patchy map with loosely connected branches reaching Lansdale in the northeast, suburban Reading in the northwest, Lancaster County in the west and the Delaware state line in the south. Republican Pat Meehan from Drexel Hill holds the seat.

Moretti said gerrymandering has several effects. It results in more non-competitive elections. And when combined with lax campaign finance laws, the absence of regulations on gerrymandering incentivises a greater amount of outside influence on elections, Moretti said. Political power brokers and their financial backers hold greater control over the elected seats.

Gerrymandered districts make it more difficult for the elected official to adequately represent the sprawling electorate. They also create more polarization within elected bodies so bipartisanship is diminished, Moretti said.

Although the practice is centuries-old, modern-day political organizations have taken gerrymandering to a new level of sophistication with computerized mapping software. The programs can take into account voter behavior and a multitude of marketing data to draft districts more favorable to a particular party or candidate.

That’s why Fair Districts PA is working to change how Pennsylvania determines its voting districts. Under current law, the legislature determines districts based on census data. Fair Districts PA wants redistricting placed in the hands of an independent citizen committee.

Many redistricting reforms are proposed in two pending bills in Harrisburg, Senate Bill 22 and House Bill 722. Fair Districts PA backs both bills, as do several lawmakers from Northeast Philly, although several other lawmakers have yet to endorse the measures, Moretti said. ••

William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com. Follow the Times on Twitter @NETimesOfficial.