Sunday, September 28, 2014

Let the People Draw the Lines

I live in one of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation.

That’s a hotly contested honor, but I think I can prove my case.

Pennsylvania's 6th Congressional District has been the subject of lawsuits for years, and was the subject of a case heard by the Supreme Court in 2003. One of the complainants in that case, Susan Furey, argued that the strangely shaped district was  created "solely to effectuate the interests of Republicans," and offered evidence that the General Assembly relied "exclusively on a principle of maximum partisan advantage" when drawing the plan "to the exclusion of all other criteria." She described the district looming “like a dragon descending on Philadelphia from the west, splitting up towns and communities throughout Montgomery and Berks Counties."

While the Supreme Court justices found the complainants’ evidence compelling, they concluded “that political gerrymandering claims are nonjusticiable because no judicially discernible and manageable standards for adjudicating such claims exist.”

To put that in normal English: even though there was clear evidence that the map had been drawn to benefit the party in power,  and even though voters’ rights are infringed by political gamesmanship over district boundaries, the courts can’t/won’t/aren’t likely to intervene unless there’s clear legislative authority to do so.

On the basis of that decision, the most recent district reapportionment resulted in an even more bizarre drawing of the District 6 map: areas of urban poverty were neatly divided to provide an even stronger margin for the party in power.
Green marks District 6 according to lines drawn in 2001. The light blue line
shows District 6 as redrawn in 2011. The red dot is candidate Mannon Trivedi's
home. The pretzel shapes in the middle are lines drawn in and around Reading. 

Yes, I can hear you yawning.



Does this matter?

I promise you, it does.

Southeastern Pennsylvania, where I live, is a wonderfully diverse region, with wealthy Main Line communities just miles from urban blight, conservative white neighborhoods surrounding towns full of immigrants, universities and colleges scattered through towns, cities, suburbs.  

We have a high number of young voters, plenty of moderates, many Independents like me, and lots of passionate, politically savvy voters from every point on the spectrum.

Which makes it hard for the parties to keep control.

In a region like mine, the parties have two choices:

Offer candidates who appeal to both sides of the aisle.

Or carve up districts in ever more creative ways to ensure a wider margin.

For my own district, the 2011 redistricting meant that candidate Manan Trivedi found himself removed from his own constituency, with those who knew him best voting elsewhere in the 2012 election.  

Incumbent Jim Gerlach, in office since 2003, won the 2012 election , but discussed the implications of gerrymandering in an interviewthis year when he announced he would not be returning: 
"When you have 435 seats (in the House of Representatives) but only 50 are competitive, you only have 50 members who need to be flexible, and it gets harder and harder to find common ground,” he said. “And every 10 years when they re-district, more districts get a little bit safer."
 Gerlach said he recognized the irony of that statement coming from someone who has arguably benefitted from the re-drawing of a district that now includes parts of five counties, but not one entire county, but few would say his district has historically been “safe.”
 Democrats at the national level have repeatedly targeted the 6 District as “winnable” since 2002, and Gerlach’s margins of victory often have been ridiculously thin. Some national publications have, at times, called them the slimmest in the nation.
 (Perhaps that’s why Gerlach’s announcement that he will not run again made news across the country, including in New YorkLos Angeles and San Francisco.)
 We’ll soon find out if the 2011 gerrymander was enough to keep Gerlach’s GOP successor safe.

Yes, gerrymandering has been around as long as there have been elections.

The term was coined in Massachusetts, in 1812, when Governor Gerry signed a redistricting bill in Massachusetts to benefit his own party. One of the districts in Boston was said to look like a salamander, yielding the word-play that lingers: “Gerry-mander.”

But gerrymandering then was a crude science compared to the practice now.

With demographic research and computerized data-mining, politicians can draw district lines with far greater exactness, splitting opposition groups with amazing precision.

Both parties do it, often without apology. I was amazed to find discussions of potential gerrymanders offered on public websites, with detailed rationale and careful explanations of how outcomes could be controlled.

A direct consequence of this practice is congressional gridlock. As Gerlach said, if parties can guarantee control of particular districts, then they can choose the candidates for those districts with little attention to alternative views.

Incumbents benefit, as do party leaders.

Power is retained by those who play the game, while voters lose interest when they realize the outcome is rigged long before the general election.
A simple graphic device devised by Fair Vote demonstrates the reality of the game. A fair line can yield even results. A more deviously placed line can ensure half the voters are totally unrepresented. 

Civic groups in some states have begun to fight back.

In Arizona, the League of Women Voters was part of a successful citizen initiative to amend the state constitution to create the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, providing for a non-partisan commission to determine election boundaries rather than the state legislature.

The first application of that amendment took place during the redistricting of 2011. At the same time, the state legislators filed suit against the commission and Arizona's Secretary of State (in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission CV12-01211-PHX-PGR). 

The legislators argued that the commission itself is illegal. The suit was dismissed by the U. S. District Court, so the legislators have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court reviewed the case on July 7, 2014; their conclusions could be announced sometime in October.

Press discussions of the situation would be funny if they weren’t so sad: citizens using legal remedies in an attempt to select the legislators; legislators suing their own state to maintain control.

That won’t happen here in Pennsylvania. We’re one of 26 states without the right to a citizen-initiated referendum.  

Which means in Pennsylvania the only recourse for citizens is to sue the state, as happened unsuccessfully in 2003, and with mixed results in 2013.

Which also means it’s highly unlikely our state legislature, or house representatives, are the people we would choose if the lines were drawn more fairly.

I know people – far too many – who say democracy in the US is dead.

Some days, I think they may be right. At least here in Pennsylvania.

A line from a Jack Johnson song keeps echoing in my head: 
Well, he tried to live, but he’s done trying
Not dead, but definitely dying.
I know people - again, too many -  who say it's a waste of time to vote, since the outcomes are rigged and the candidates come to power owing favors to party leaders and corporate sponsors, with no interest in serving the public good. 

I understand their point. 

And when I dig into issues like gerrymandering, I find myself discouraged.

Yet – what’s the alternative?

I spent the weekend with the state board of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania.

Even as we met, word came in from districts around the state where politicians are playing more games: pulling a candidate who looks unpopular and trying to insert someone voters don’t yet know. Just weeks before the elections.

Pulling out of agreed-on debates just days before the debate was to take place, refusing to answer voters’ questions and effectively silencing opponents who were eager to discuss issues together.

The work of democracy is complicated, costly, endlessly aggravating, often perplexing, too rarely rewarding.

The way forward is as convoluted, as hard to untangle, as my own District 6 boundaries. 

Even so, I'm convinced the alternative is worse.

Ways to engage:

All about Redistricting’s How Can the Public Engage offers a list of ways citizens can engage with the process, questions to ask about how boundaries are drawn, and more information about why this matters..

It’s also worth looking at candidate’s web pages (find them through Smart Voter in PA  or through Vote 411 in most other states), and it's worth spending some time studying incumbent’s voting records, and major contributors. Some candidates demonstrate a strong awareness that our processes are broken and need fixing, Others show a steady disregard for voters’ rights and abuses of process.

Make sure you’re registered (you can check that online) and if you know citizens who might have trouble registering, print out forms and help them fill and file them. The deadline, in Pennsylvania, is October 6.

Vote, and encourage others to vote.

Even if sometimes it feels pointless. 

This is the fifth in a series looking at specific issues of importance in state and local elections, as an extension of my 2012 series "What's Your Platform?" 

Earlier posts:  
What are Workers Worth, September 1, 2014
Back to School Lament, September 7, 2014
Privatization and Elementary Math, September 14,  2014
Who is Allowed to Vote? September 21, 2014 
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.