WASHINGTON – President Obama didn’t name names when he called for an end to gerrymandering in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night – but if he did, Pennsylvania would have been a top contender.
Since the last round of redistricting, after the 2010 Census, the state’s congressional map has been widely cited as one of the country’s most heavily gerrymandered – the term for when legislative maps are drawn to favor one party, either in a particular district or across an entire state.
One Washington Post analysis put the Delaware County-based 7th in the nation’s top 10 most rigged congressional districts, based on its sprawling outline as it spreads across five counties.
The practice is usually carried out by state legislatures, which control redistricting in most states. The process happens after every Census, and after 2010 helped Republicans in Pennsylvania (and Democrats in some other states) tilt competitive areas in their favor, making swing districts a bit more friendly, and helping boost their numbers in Congress.
The meandering 7th district, for example, was won by Democrats as recently as 2008. But Republican Pat Meehan took it in 2010, it was redrawn shortly after and he hasn’t seen a close election since.
A similar story has played out in South Jersey’s third district, which Democrats won in 2008, lost in 2010 and haven’t come close to recapturing since, after a redistrict committee excised Cherry Hill, a Democratic stronghold. Republican Tom MacArthur now holds the seat.
Of course, gerrymandering alone doesn’t explain the results: in both cases Republicans won the seats before redistricting and have generally fielded stronger candidates. The new districts, however, with some more conservative reaches attached, give them a cushion as they try to hold onto moderate territory that would be normally be highly competitive. Democrats might still be able to win under the right circumstances, but Republicans begin with an advantage.
The result? In 2012 Democrats won 51 percent of the Congressional vote in Pennsylvania but took just five of 18 House seats. In 2014, Republicans won 55.5 percent of the House vote – and those same 13 seats, or 72 percent of the state’s total.
(A Post piece today compares Pennsylvania’s convoluted congressional map with how a neutral computer program would draw it, though lawmakers justify the sometimes awkward-looking districts by saying they are trying to group communities with similar interests while accounting for population shifts).
Democrats in Maryland and other places have also drawn districts to their liking, tying moderate, swing areas to urban centers loaded with blue voters. Republicans, though, have had more success across the country, since they control more state legislatures, and therefore more of the congressional maps.
“We've got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” Obama said Tuesday night in a long section focused on American civics. “Let a bipartisan group do it.”
Republican Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey said he didn’t recall any such objections when Democrats controlled more state houses.
“Should there be some superior body that gets to decide” how to draw districts? he asked. “Or should it be the people who are elected across the various states?”
But another Republican, Bucks County Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, who holds one of the few true swing seats left on the map, said redistricting reform was one of the few pieces of the speech he enjoyed.
The national impact of gerrymandering is still debated by experts. Some see it as a major factor in Republicans’ firm grip on the House, even in years when Democrats have won more total votes. Others say that natural trends have led to Democrats clustering in cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh while Republicans in the suburbs and exurbs have spread out more efficiently when it comes to winning House seats. And they say that if both parties’ gerrymanders were eliminated, the net change would be relatively small.
Still, experts on all sides of the discussion agree that in individual states – such as Pennsylvania – the political map can have a major impact in how many seats favor one party or the other.
Some states are trying to make changes. Constitutional amendments in Florida forced the Sunshine State to redraw its congressional maps. The new ones, free from partisan rigging, are expected to help Democrats gain two to three seats in Congress. One Republican incumbent saw his new district and announced that he would not seek re-election.
South Dakota and Illinois are also considering changes, according to an NPR report.
But neither party is disarming. Democrats watched the GOP use its REDMAP initiative in 2010 to sweep to massive gains in statehouses just in time for the last redistricting.
This time, Democrats have their own program, Advantage 2020, aimed at helping to win state elections that year, in the hope that the next set of maps looks more favorable for them.