Pennsylvania is the poster child for gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is the manipulation of electoral maps for political advantage.
In 1812, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry backed a redistricting plan favoring his own party, the Democrat-Republicans. One district was shaped like a strange salamander like wings. The press combined Gerry’s name with “salamander”. Ever since, the practice of drawing distorted districts has been known as gerrymandering.
Pennsylvania’s Congressional districts were among the worst in the country after the 2011 redistricting process. Those districts were changed after a 2017-2018 lawsuit. Our state senate and house districts continue to be among the most gerrymandered by any measure available.
In Pennsylvania, political leaders draw district lines to decide elections before a vote is cast. Here are some ways they manipulate maps to protect incumbents and keep their party in power:
Cracking reduces the voting power of a certain party or community by splitting its population and spreading its members among several districts where they become an irrelevant minority.
Packing concentrates voters of one party or community in as few districts as possible to reduce their influence in the remaining districts.
Sweetheart (also called incumbent or bipartisan handshake) gerrymanders are designed to protect incumbents of both parties. It’s a tacit deal between parties to keep to the status quo—regardless of what voters want.
Prison-based gerrymandering counts incarcerated people, who are not allowed to vote, in the district where the prison is located, rather than in their home districts. This gives voters from districts with large prisons more influence than they should have.
Consider Pennsylvania’s previous 7th Congressional District (2010-2013), nicknamed “Goofy kicking Donald.” It’s regularly described as one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country.
The problem wasn’t just its odd shape. It was a prime example of cracking: The lines spread poor urban communities out among suburban and rural areas.
The lines were drawn to put Reading voters in the same district as Lancaster farmers. We can’t directly link cracking with poverty and low school funding, but Reading is one of the poorest communities, with one of the most underfunded school systems, in the U.S.
While Congressional District 7 no longer looks like a cartoon, you could find similar stories across Pennsylvania in our PA House and Senate maps from the 2010 redistricting cycle. Some communities and counties were divided and voters deprived of choice and voice.
The way it works now, party leaders have tremendous influence over the outcomes of elections. They can draw lines that make it almost impossible to vote an incumbent legislator out of office—or they can retaliate against a legislator who is too independent. Both parties have used this power to gerrymander in their favor.
It’s time for an independent citizens redistricting commission. More and more states are ending the conflict of interest that allows legislators to choose their voters. PA can do that too.
It’s also time for legislative rules that ensure partisan solutions can be brought to a vote.