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Fix democracy and end partisan gerrymandering: Carol Nechemias and Robert Naeye

Posted 6/7/17

Are you tired of endless political gridlock? Disappointed in uncontested elections? Frustrated that you can’t throw the bums out?

Gerrymandering — the drawing of legislative districts to …

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Fix democracy and end partisan gerrymandering: Carol Nechemias and Robert Naeye

Posted

Are you tired of endless political gridlock? Disappointed in uncontested elections? Frustrated that you can’t throw the bums out?

Gerrymandering — the drawing of legislative districts to favor one party or the other — lurks behind these troubling trends. Gerrymandering is as old as our country, practiced by politicians who control the redistricting process. The goal remains the same — keeping one party in power and forging safe seats for that party’s incumbents. Politicians pick their voters when it’s supposed to be the other way around.

Yesterday’s gerrymandering was primitive compared to current practices. Now we have gerrymandering on steroids, fueled by advances in data mining and mapping technology. With surgical precision, self-interested party leaders in the Pennsylvania Legislature slice and dice our communities for their own political advantage.

Party leaders in the Legislature ripped Dauphin County into three U.S. congressional districts, with our House representatives coming from distant Allentown, Hazleton and York. This practice denies our area of local representation in Washington.

Pennsylvania ranks as one of the worst gerrymandered states in our nation. Our U.S. congressional district stretches from the Susquehanna River all the way to the Delaware River. An even more outrageously contorted district, outside Philadelphia, has been derided nationally as Goofy kicking Donald Duck. All of these bizarre districts run contrary to Pennsylvania’s Constitution, which demands compact districts and intact communities.

Because of gerrymandering, in the 2016 general election 13 of 25 state Senate candidates and 97 of 203 state House candidates did not face a major party challenger. Half of the legislative elections were thus noncompetitive, and even in districts where both major parties fielded candidates, the margins of victory were often lopsided, reflecting the overwhelming advantages of running in “safe districts.”

These noncompetitive elections mean that the real election occurs in the party primary, where voter turnout is often low and voters are generally less moderate in their political orientations. This process thus tends to generate extreme candidates who will not compromise with the other party, leading to gridlock in Harrisburg and Washington.

Gerrymandering also gives party bosses in the Legislature a weapon to enforce strict party-line discipline. They can take away the district of any legislator who dares to vote with the other party on key legislation.

In a recent Franklin & Marshall poll, the state government and its politicians have the dubious distinction of ranking first as the most important problem facing Pennsylvania today. The approval rating for the state Legislature has sunk to a dismal 15 percent.

Eliminating gerrymandering requires an amendment to Pennsylvania’s Constitution. Several redistricting reform proposals are circulating within the Legislature. The most comprehensive are Senate Bill 22 and House Bill 722, which would replace the current corrupt system with an independent, nonpartisan citizen’s commission. Both bills enjoy broad bipartisan sponsorship and support.

Identical reform bills must pass the Legislature in two consecutive sessions. After clearing this high hurdle, a majority of Pennsylvania’s voters would have to approve the amendment in a statewide referendum.

Because the next round of redistricting will occur after the 2020 census, when Pennsylvania will lose one or two seats in the House, people interested in more effective government feel a sense of urgency. If redistricting reform does not occur before 2020, we’ll have to wait until the next census in 2030 to get responsive government.

Our state senator, Mike Folmer, chairs the committee that has jurisdiction over SB 22. Citizens committed to good governance should contact his office (www.senatorfolmer.com) and urge him to hold a series of hearings and support a fair, transparent, and impartial redistricting process.

For more information about redistricting reform, visit the website of Fair Districts PA (www.fairdistrictspa.org), a nonpartisan volunteer organization.

Carol Nechemias of Middletown is a retired professor at Penn State-Harrisburg. Robert Naeye is a freelance journalist based in Derry Township and is the former editor-in-chief of Sky & Telescope magazine.