by Bob Stevens
In a democracy, a key component is that as citizens and voters we are operating on a level playing field. When we exercise our right to vote, it should matter. When there is a system in which some voters have significantly more impact than others, we have a serious problem. In Pennsylvania today, we are experiencing such a problem because of heavily gerrymandered congressional and legislative districts.
While the practice of gerrymandering is not a new one, the process of legislators drawing the lines and in effect selecting which voters will vote for them has grown. And with new, sophisticated technology, it has become an art form. As a result, fewer and fewer races for Congress are even remotely competitive. Pennsylvania ranks among the 10 worst states in terms of egregious gerrymandering. In 2016, the average margin of victory among the 18 members of the Pennsylvania congressional delegation was a remarkable 43%!
An analysis of the most recent Congressional vote throughout the state indicates that while the total popular vote was essentially an even split between Republican and Democratic candidates for Congress, Republicans won 13 of the 18 available seats (three seats were uncontested). Simply put, because of gerrymandering, there is often no realistic chance to change a seat’s affiliation.
Take the 11th Congressional District. A glance at the district map reveals a district stretching from places like Tunkhannock in Wyoming County to Shippensburg in Cumberland County. It then weaves through portions of Luzerne, Columbia, Carbon, Perry, Northumberland, Dauphin, and Montour counties. If you were to drive the most direct route, it would take about three hours to drive across the district. Why such an enormous geographic area? Gerrymandering. It carves out a district that weighs heavily to the Republican candidate, making the seat noncompetitive.
Why is this important and undemocratic? Because if the seat is “safe” for one party, the elected representative has a disincentive to consider differing viewpoints. In a district that is drawn fairly, with lines that are both geographically compact and politically close, an elected official must reach out to everyone. Entire constituencies can’t be written off, resulting in public policy that is more thoughtful and reflective of a wider range of thought and opinion. From a voter’s standpoint, a fairly drawn district offers the potential of competitive races in which there are real choices and an incentive for candidates to listen and develop policy that truly represents the will of the population as a whole.
The 11th District also offers a glimpse into another area of concern with this practice. Because the district is not “compact,” there is often little common interest among the constituents of the district. The vast majority of this district is either rural or small towns; Nanticoke and Hazleton are the only two cities. Sure, there is bound to be some overlapping concerns, but largely the voter in Hazleton has a different set of priorities than, say, a voter in Montour, Wyoming, or Perry counties. This also creates a situation where the single greatest population center of the district holds little actual clout. Even if the Luzerne County section of the district were to vote by a large margin for a Democratic candidate, the Republican candidate is very likely to prevail given the overwhelming number of Republicans in the remaining parts of the district.
Hence, the irony that the current Congressman, Lou Barletta, who rose to political prominence by scapegoating Latino immigrants, has the least incentive to respond to the issues impacting his own hometown of Hazleton, which has by far the largest Hispanic population in his district. In fact, recent census information shows that while PA has an overall Hispanic population of 6.8% as of 2015, 40% of Hazleton residents identified as Hispanic in that same year, which is among the highest in the state. Thus, the largest growing segment of any demographic in the entire 11th District lacks meaningful congressional representation.
This is what gerrymandering does, and why it is such a vital issue. Eliminating gerrymandering is not a partisan issue. The intent is simply to favor the voter, not political parties or those in power who decide who they want their voters to be.
I encourage citizens to engage in efforts to end gerrymandering, as I have.
For more information, go to Fair Districts PA.
You can also take steps to support the bipartisan SB 22, which would create an independent citizen commission to draw district lines.
The group Hazletonians for Progress will provide information about upcoming meetings and events related to this issue on its Facebook page.
The road to meaningful change is through this type of activism. Making our democracy democratic is worth your time and support.