Many Swarthmorean readers live in or adjacent to the U.S. Congressional District which has become the national poster child for absurdly drawn, gerrymandered districts. The Pennsylvania 7th District has been described as “Goofy kicking Donald Duck in the rump.” Your Rorschach test results may vary, but whatever you see in the shape, it’s hard to conclude that this was the most natural way to represent the constituents of 7th District US representative Patrick Meehan.
Beth Lawn lives in “Goofy’s thumb, as far as I can figure out,” she said, a part of eastern Chester, which was in previous times represented by Democrat Bob Brady in the 1st District like the rest of Chester, but after the 2011 redistricting became part of 7th district.
“I am put in with people in Montgomery County, Lancaster and Berks County, so far away that I don’t really have issues in common with them, I can’t network with them. And Chester is divided. The intent of it was to make a safe Republican district, and I feel that my vote doesn’t really count.”
Legislative districts are redrawn every decade following the U.S. Census. In Pennsylvania, the process is carried out by legislators who, as Lawn laments, may act in partisan self-interest to retain and consolidate party power, in Harrisburg and Washington. The gathering movement to combat gerrymandering has coalesced into groups which are driving for reform through legislative and judicial channels.
The Public Interest Law Center (of Philadelphia) filed suit this week against the state of Pennsylvania, petitioning Commonwealth Court to order revision of the process used to create legislative districts. Each of Pennsylvania’s U.S. Congressional districts is represented by a petitioner named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Lawn, who is an active grandmother and a part-time chaplain at White Horse Village in Newtown Square, says she volunteered as a plaintiff to represent her neighbors (near and far) in the 7th district
Lawn said: “It doesn’t matter which party is being favored. [The current system] just dilutes and distorts everybody’s vote. How can we have competitive elections if the districts are drawn to perpetuate the status quo?”
Local Action Matters
Swarthmorean Sharon Lee was among a group of about 100 citizens who convened in early April at the Swarthmore Public Library to learn from State Representative Leanne Krueger-Braneky of Swarthmore and speakers from the Public Interest Law Council and Fair Districts PA, which was a joint creation of the League of Women Voters and Common Cause.
“We reached a lot of people and got good responses, and we hope to keep spreading the word about what is happening in the effort,” Lee said, noting that the issue has been a concern for many in the borough for years. “Two years ago, Swarthmore Borough Council passed a resolution calling for legislative districts to be drawn by an independent, nonpartisan commission. The goal is to get every municipality in Pennsylvania to do the same. We need to keep getting information to legislators.”
Success in reaching a legislative solution is extremely challenging. Such a change to the process would entail passage of legislation in both the Senate and the House, during two consecutive sessions in order to enshrine new law before the 2020 census gives rise to the next redistricting process. These bills are HB 1114, which has 96 co-sponsors including Rep. Krueger-Braneky, and SB22, which has 13 cosponsors, none local.
Krueger-Braneky said: “Because the redistricting reform bill is actually a constitutional amendment, you would need to pass it in both houses this session, you would need to pass it again next session, and then there would be basically a ballot question that goes to the voters.”
Legislation seems less likely to provide relief than litigation, Leanne continued: “I have personally thought for a while that there’s a better chance of us getting reform through the court system and not a legislative body that would have to vote against its own self interests in order to effect change.
“I think this bill is favored by my constituents who live in Swarthmore, Rose Valley, and Wallingford. It is not an issue I’ve heard about from constituents in places like Aston and Brookhaven and Ridley… my district is pretty diverse in terms of the issues that constituents care about.”
Michael Rader, chief of staff for State Senator Tom McGarrigle of the 26th senatorial district, said that Sen. McGarrigle has received “probably equal input from both sides” of the argument for redistricting. The senator agrees, Rader says, that “The redistricting process in Pennsylvania is far from perfect. But a small group of unelected, unaccountable individuals drawing the lines really isn’t the answer. We need a process that’s more transparent, more accountable to the voters, not less.”
Still, Lora Lavin of the League of Women Voters of Delaware County said, “I would encourage readers to contact Senators McGarrigle and Tom Killion, because until they take a position on SB 22, they need to hear from their constituents.”
A Matter of Timing
The Pennsylvania lawsuit was filed on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear an appeal in a gerrymandering-based case out of Wisconsin, where the a three judge panel ruled in favor of plaintiffs who claimed that the state districting process discriminated against citizens based on political party.
Mimi McKenzie of the Public Interest Law Center, a lead plaintiff in the recently-filed Pennsylvania case, said that the timing of the lawsuit’s filing is only coincidentally linked to the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the Wisconsin appeal, and has more to do with this moment in the 10 year redistricting cycle. “If you file right after redistricting, say in 2011, you are basically trying to predict how elections will turn out. But by analyzing election results from three cycles, you can actually see how durable this partisan gerrymandering is. No matter how the vote swung in the house, in 2012, 2014, and 2016 the 13-5 Republican majority held. In 2012, 49% of statewide house votes were for Republican candidates, yet they won 72% of seats. Same thing in 2014 and 2016.
“The other part of timing is that it’s now or never if we want to have a shot at having the current map declared invalid for 2018. We seek relief by having maps declared unconstitutional. And enjoin elections under this map. But it’s hard to predict what the court would do. They could send it back to the General Assembly to create a fairer map, with some guidance on what could and could not be included. They could appoint a special mastered to create a new map, or they could ask the parties for alternative maps.”
Though deeply invested in the judicial approach to reform, Mimi McKenzie sees the lawsuit as just a tool to get to the point where the conditions exist for legislative change “A lawsuit only fixes the problem for the next one or two election cycles. With a new 2020 census, maps will be redrawn. The long-term solution really lies with the legislature.”