Consent of the governed. These four little words are the cornerstone of our democracy. They appear in the section of the Declaration of Independence that begins with “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” and ends by stating that governments derive their powers “from the Consent of the Governed.”
No amount of checks and balances matters if, ultimately, those who are elected do not truly have the people’s consent to represent them.
The fact that our elected officials no longer have our consent is at the heart of our democracy’s erosion — and behind that is partisan gerrymandering, the process of drawing voting districts that favor one party over another.
The people give the government consent by voting, which we do by district. In most states, including Pennsylvania, districts are redrawn every 10 years to reflect changes in population per the U.S. Census. In Pennsylvania, both congressional and state legislative districts are largely determined by representatives of the majority party in Harrisburg.
It is a system that favors politicians — and politics — over citizens; it is a system where politicians pick their voters, instead of voters picking their politicians.
Gerrymandering is almost as old as the country itself. It is named after Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry who, in 1812, backed a redistricting plan in which one district was so convoluted it resembled a salamander (Gerry + salamander = Gerrymander). However, modern politicians have taken it to a whole new level by using big data and highly sophisticated mapping technology to help them pick exactly who they want in or out of a voting district.
The ill-effects of partisan gerrymandering are many: Districts are drawn to ensure safe seats for the incumbent party so that future contests are not truly competitive; thus, people’s votes do not really count. Incumbents in safe districts only fear challengers of their own party who are more extreme, which encourages them to take more extreme positions. Catering to these extremes, and the division it foments, makes compromise and problem-solving in Harrisburg and Washington impossible.
We do not have to look far to observe partisan gerrymandering’s worst results. We are living it in Pennsylvania (see the current budget stand-off) and across the country (see every major piece of legislation from tax reform to health care to immigration since Barack Obama was elected president in 2008).
Now, Pennsylvanians have a chance to restore meaningful consent by creating an impartial, independent citizens commission to direct the redistricting process. States that have created such commissions have seen improvements in representation, competitiveness, and voter trust.
To make this a reality in Pennsylvania, we have to change the state constitution. Both the state House and Senate must approve the fair districts bill during two consecutive sessions. Citizens must then ratify the amendment in a ballot referendum.
Bipartisan bills have been introduced in the House and Senate and are cosponsored by more than a hundred legislators.
So, what is the hold up?
Both bills are in the hands of those in power who, naturally, are reluctant to have that power taken from them. They are stalling, refusing to hold hearings or move the bills forward.
Republicans and Democrats in Harrisburg have reasons to continue the status quo. The current maps, drawn by Republicans in 2011, favor the GOP, which holds 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 seats in the U.S. House — or 72 percent — despite winning 54 percent of the statewide congressional vote in 2016. And Democrats may not want things to change, believing they will get their turn to tilt the scales after the 2020 census.
How long will the people allow our elected officials to play this game?
We are the governed. We must take back our consent, make voting districts competitive, and encourage our elected officials to work together on our behalf and in the best interest of the people they represent.
The corruption at the heart of the system is clear. Those who do not have our consent should not have power. And we are prepared to fix this broken system.