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Monkey business

LWV explains why the practice of manipulating political districts benefits no one

Photo submitted to Times Observer The January 23 Indivisible Warren program informed attendees about fair districting in Pennsylvania. Warren League of Women Voters members were the presenters. Shown are Indivisible coordinator Karen Black, and LWV members Phyllis Wright, and Susan Stout. They also encouraged people to complete the 10 question census form in April and explained its importance for Warren County.

Gerrymandering.

Along with shenanigans, high jinks, and tomfoolery, the English language loves to create fun sounding words to describe behaviors that pretty much boil down to one meaning…

Up to no good.

At least, that’s what Phyllis Wright and Susan Stout of The League of Women Voters (LWV) seemed to impress to the folks of Indivisible Warren with their presentation last Thursday evening at Emanuel United Church of Christ.

The actual definition of gerrymander, refers to the practice of manipulating the boundaries of (an electoral constituency) so as to favor one party or class over another. The term itself dates all the way back to 1812 and is named after then Governor of Massachusetts Elbridge Gerry, who had signed a bill that created a partisan district in the Boston area that was compared to the shape of a mythological salamander.

Times Observer photo by Dave Ferry The January 23 Indivisible Warren program informed attendees about fair districting in Pennsylvania. Warren League of Women Voters members were the presenters. Shown are Indivisible coordinator Karen Black, and LWV members Phyllis Wright, and Susan Stout. They also encouraged people to complete the 10 question census form in April and explained its importance for Warren County.

According to LWV, the practice of gerrymandering has been going on for quite some time by members of both political parties. The federal constitution suggests that each state write its own laws on redistricting. Currently in Pennsylvania, that law puts state legislators in charge of redistricting–the process of redrawing voting districts, which happens every 10 years to reflect population changes.

What that means is that, although we live in a democracy, where voters are meant to choose their politicians, the status quo enables politicians to choose their voters.

With the 2020 census beginning to ramp up nationwide, the LWV believes that even though the timeline is tight, the problem can be fixed.

“At the federal level, even as population goes up,” Susan Stout explained,“we no longer increase the number of members in the house of representatives. The federal level takes the census data, you can see that over the long term, as our population has decreased in this state, we continue to lose congressional representatives.”

“The policy in PA,” Stout continued, “is that the party in power in the PA state house and senate introduce a bill that says these are going to be the congressional districts.”

Although the governor of that state does have to sign the bill, it all has to pass with a majority vote, making it very susceptible to the established majority, according to Stout.

A second policy in our state constitution regarding how we do our senate and house redistricting within the state. Each major party will appoint two members to a commission. A chair is then appointed to the commission that is supposed to be appointed in cooperation of the two parties.

“If they can’t agree on who the chair will be, then it goes to the State Supreme Court.” Stout said. “Currently five of the judges on the PA Supreme Court have been appointed by Democrats and two by Republicans.

According to Stout, for people who lean Democrat that may sound like good news, but for people who lean fair, it seems crazy that it would be partisan at all.

“What this means is that both parties right now see some benefit from the status quo.” Stout said. “In 2018 it was the republicans who voraciously opposed the legislative reform and redistricting policy report to put an end to gerrymandering. Despite the fact that republicans had only 38% of registered voters, they had districted in such a way that they had 13 of the 18 seats,” were republican in the house of representatives.

The current state supreme court sided with their districts, and rewrote districts closer to the voter alignment.

“Now, both sides have reason to oppose gerrymandering reform.” Stout points out.

“Not red, not blue, but fair.” Phyllis Wright said. “that’s really been our theme for quite awhile.”

Adorned in a bright red sweater, Wright insists it’s only because “it’s warm folks, it’s nothing about partisan.”

“This has done by the legislators and not by the voters.” she said. “There are nineteen states refusing the medicaid expansion, but the strong support (for it) was from the voters. Those are just some examples of what gerrymandering has done.”

This is just about Pennsylvania. According to Wright, if you were to go to Ohio, Wisconsin, Maryland, Delaware, it’s the same subject everywhere.

“In Wisconsin, first they gerrymandered in the ordinary way for a disproportionate representation.” Stout added. “Then they gerrymandered a supermajority, so the republican party can basically do anything it wants in Wisconsin.”

For example, “In the 2018 election, when Wisconsin did not re-elect Scott Walker but elected a democratic governor, the supermajority in the Wisconsin House was able to pass legislation that just shredd the governors authority to do anything.” according to Stout.

“Or the citizens,” Wright chimed in.

There are variety of techniques used by gerrymandering. Wright described two called “cracking” and “packing.”

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.

According to the LWV, what it will take to fix congressional redistricting is an act to change the redistricting process being passed by the General Assembly then signed into law by the governor.

Representatives Tom Murt (R – Montgomery/Philadelphia counties) and Steve Samuelson (D – Northampton County) have introduced House Bill 22 and House Bill 23, two bills designed to create one independent citizens commission in time for the next round of redistricting following the 2020 U.S. Census.

HB 22 amends the PA Constitution to create an independent commission for both congressional and legislative redistricting. HB 23 creates an independent commission just for congressional redistricting.

They urge concerned voters to take action by contacting their legislators. Another solution is to visit actionnetwork.org/petitions/enact-sb22-and-hb722 and sign the petition to end gerrymandering in PA. Or visit FairDistrictsPA.com to learn more.

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