Census offers chance to counter gerrymandering


The maneuvering to replace the late Rep. John Murtha (D., Pa.) highlights a political abuse in dire need of reform in Pennsylvania.
Murtha’s 12th Congressional District is a gerrymandered mess. The shape of the district looks like a mutant, one-legged lobster with an oversize claw. It covers portions of nine counties, stretching from Johnstown on its northeast end to the southwestern corner of the state.
The district’s boundaries were drawn a decade ago to ensure that the powerful Murtha wouldn’t have serious competition at election time. Ironically, Republicans controlled reapportionment at the time. They, too, enjoyed the fruits of Murtha’s pork in Washington and wanted to keep him in office.
Partisan redistricting isn’t isolated to Murtha’s district, or to Pennsylvania. But the Keystone State is one of the worst practitioners of this destructive habit.
The legislature controls redistricting every 10 years, after the Census is completed. Depending on which party is in power, the boundaries of state legislative districts also are sliced and diced to benefit incumbents.
Among the worst examples of gerrymandering now are the 172d District, held by Republican Rep. John M. Perzel in Northeast Philadelphia, and the 161st District, represented by Democratic Rep. Bryan Lentz of Delaware County.
Gerrymandering divides communities, confuses voters, and protects incumbents. It also tends to produce a legislature that’s more partisan and less cooperative, as each party’s base becomes more important to legislators’ reelection.
In Congress, only about 60 House races out of 435 are considered competitive. In the others, the winners are all but assured. In New Jersey in 2008, all 11 House incumbents won reelection, and eight of them were considered “untouchable.”
There’s still a slim chance that legislators in Harrisburg could reform the redistricting process in time for the new legislative maps to take shape for elections in 2012. It would require the legislature to approve a law this year and early next year, to put before voters a constitutional amendment in the 2011 primaries.
Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.) has sponsored a bill that would improve the process by requiring more transparency in reapportionment, such as more public hearings and data posted online. It doesn’t go as far as seeking a constitutional amendment, but that’s what is needed. This legislation should be strengthened to prevent the redistricting commission, appointed by party leaders, from engaging in their finely tuned partisan science.
Currently, the people who redraw district boundaries rely on data such as voting patterns, party registration in precincts, and residency of incumbents. Josephs’ bill should be amended to forbid such data from being used to draw new districts.
In the long term, Pennsylvania should change the composition of its redistricting panel to make it nonpartisan. California voters approved a process that calls for a 14-member commission chosen by a panel of auditors from a pool of public applicants. Those who apply cannot have run for political office, worked as a lobbyist, or donated more than $2,000 to a political campaign in one year.
Without such significant changes, Pennsylvanians will continue to pay for a gridlocked system that results in representatives beholden to special interests and not responsive to voters.