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When simple rules aren’t enough

February 13th, 2018, 6:36pm by Sam Wang


As the old political-science saying goes, “all redistricting is gerrymandering.” Inevitably, choices and tradeoffs have to be made. When it comes to representation, the resulting map can end up balanced – unless partisan advantage is made the primary criterion.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court set down clear “floor criteria” for what was absolutely required in the revised map. They said that counties, cities, and wards should not be divided, except to achieve equal population as required by federal law, and to comply with the Voting Rights Act. However, they also said (see page 124 of the decision):

We recognize…that there exists the possibility that advances in map drawing technology and analytical software can potentially allow mapmakers, in the future, to engineer congressional districting maps, which, although minimally comporting with these neutral “floor” criteria, nevertheless operate to unfairly dilute the power of a particular group’s vote for a congressional representative.

Although compliant with floor criteria, a close look at the Pennsylvania GOP legislative leaders’ proposed map reveals some of the choices they made. All it takes is an overlay of population density. Here are some examples.

Here, in northeast Pennsylvania, packing Wilkes-Barre and Scranton together in the 17th district was a clear partisan choice to benefit Republicans, since they had to split Luzerne County to do that. They could have just as easily moved rural voters out of the 11th district instead of the citizens of Wilkes-Barre. In this example, the 17th district is packed with Democratic voters and the 11th district is turned Republican.

Legislators also proposed to split the city of Reading down the middle. The east half of Reading is clustered with part of Montgomery County, which is carved up like the Egyptian sun god Osiris. Certainly, county splits have to be put someplace in order to generate districts of equal population – but the question is where.

Harrisburg is on a county line, and it’s cracked to benefit Republicans, again keeping some urban dwellers out of the 11th district. In this case, though, it was done using a county boundary rather than using an arbitrary line. Similar strategic choices were made elsewhere in the state.

The net outcome is less extreme than the current map, but still clearly advantageous for one side – 12-13 Republicans, 5-6 Democrats for a 50-50 statewide vote. It is no surprise that Governor Wolf rejected this plan. Now the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has the task of drawing the final map.

To me, a major lesson here is that rules to keep counties and cities together are a good start – but they’re not enough by themselves. Coming up with a balanced plan requires give-and-take between multiple interests – in short, a process in which many voices are heard.

Thanks to Brian Remlinger and Will Adler for analysis and map-drawing.

Tags: 2018 Election · Redistricting

3 Comments so far ↓

  • Hank Gillette

    If you had a computer program that drew districts as compactly as possible, without any input as to voter registration or past voting, would this still result in a Republican advantage in Pennsylvania?

    It would probably take care of the Wilkes-Barre and Scranton gerrymander, but Democrats are still packed together in urban areas.

    Should redistricting be cognizant of where the voters are and strive to ensure that congressional representation represents the state population? I remember there was a district in NC that basically followed the path of an interstate to create a district that would likely elect a black representative.

    In the worst case, you could have a state that normally breaks 55-45 for presidential elections and create districts that would give the possibility of the majority party all of the congressional positions.

    • Sam Wang

      Maybe, but that is a bad solution because there are still too many possibilities. We are working on proving this. I actually think it is common knowledge among redistricters, but it needs to be more broadly appreciated.

    • LondonYoung

      Beware of confusing two things:
      1) The rights of an individual to be represented by a congressperson of their choice
      2) The rights of all voters, as a group, to be represented by a congress which represents them as a group

      When the VRA was first passed, it was of benefit to a black voter to be in a district with a black congressional rep. Electing an extra white dem by moving him/her into another district didn’t help that voter much in 1965. Times have changed, and this is *somewhat* less of a concern now.

      At the moment SCOTUS is struggling over the individual vs. the collective rights. (In addition to the “headline” partisan issue.) Dems are certainly naturally “packed” into cities and Dr. Wang estimates this gives the GOP a 12 seat edge nationally, a couple of which are in PA. To this the GOP have added about 12 more from gerrymandering, about three of which are in PA.

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