One Man, One Vote — Really

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History and literature are chock-full of stories of bad situations not only turning themselves around, but benefitting others in ways unheard of before.

There’s the mythological Phoenix, rising from the ashes of its predecessor to reach new heights. There’s Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, made possible only by accidentally compromising a lab sample.

And then there’s Carson Wentz’s spectacular escape from an impending sack on third-and-8 to run 18 yards up the middle in the Eagles’ impressive Oct. 23 defeat of the Redskins.

Of course, not every trip on the grass ends up being a career-defining run, and history is likewise replete with tales of the bad turning to worse. Take the Islamic revolution and the Iran hostage crisis, or the example of poor Sisyphus, who no matter how hard he tries, can’t finish rolling his boulder to the summit.

And here in Philadelphia, our legislators long ago pulled out of the ashes of the partisan redistricting process not a birdlike symbol of birth, but a twisted dragon — others have described it as looking like Goofy kicking Donald Duck — we know as the 7th Congressional District, a symbol of how power and influence can imperil democracy.

Pennsylvania’s 7th is recognized as one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country. Represented by Republican Rep. Pat Meehan, it contains four loci in Delaware, Chester, southeastern Berks and a small part of Montgomery counties, some connected by corridors just a few blocks wide.

Democrats, whose registration numbers rival those of Republicans statewide but count only five representatives out of 18 in Congress, say that the 7th district in particular was designed by a Republican-led process after the 2010 Census to dilute Democratic votes in the Philadelphia suburbs. (Unlike in some other states, where bipartisan panels draw congressional lines every 10 years, Pennsylvania’s state legislators are in charge of redistricting in the commonwealth.)

The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania has sued the General Assembly, contending that the district violates the constitutional idea of one person, one vote. With an eye on an upcoming case in the U.S. Supreme Court looking at partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin, the league has asked the state Supreme Court to use its King’s Bench power to issue a ruling before next year’s midterm elections.

That probably won’t happen, but that hasn’t stopped Democrats like state Sen. Daylin Leach, who is running to represent the district in Congress, from drawing attention to the issue. He’s moderating a discussion in Plymouth Meeting on Nov. 1 with former Salon.com editor-in-chief David Daley on Daley’s new book about redistricting, Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy. The event is sponsored by Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania.

Democrats have a good case to make, especially in this state. Back in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court case Vieth v. Jubelirer — as in Robert C. Jubelirer, the longtime Jewish leader of the state Senate who was defeated in a primary three years later — set the stage for the current legal wrangling.

At the time, the justices said that partisan gerrymandering was not justifiable for the want of a discernible standard by which to judge any particular district’s map. Computer scientists and demographers have since developed a series of tests, all while instances of extreme gerrymandering have gotten worse.

But in Pennsylvania, Republicans are at fault for our contorted district maps only because they’ve long controlled the levers of legislative power in Harrisburg. Had Democrats been in charge, there is little to suggest that they wouldn’t have created a map skewed in their party’s favor.

At the end of the day, even if Democratic votes are diluted by cartographical shenanigans, the Democratic Party is free to field candidates at every level reflective of voters in any particular district. The irony is that given events at the national level, Leach might actually win next year in a district designed to give his incumbent opponent the upper hand.

That’s not to say that there’s no harm in the way redistricting is practiced in Harrisburg.
Contorted districts tend to jumble constituents’ concerns and desires — the average voter in rural Chester County might not share the outlook of someone in suburban Delaware County. Under such a system, how is a legislator supposed to adequately represent all of their views in Congress?

Additionally, redistricting has served to make districts as a whole less competitive and thereby entrench incumbency in Washington. In such an environment, it’s no wonder why Congress has lower approval ratings than the president.

Perhaps the courts will finally give us a standard to forestall the gross inequities caused by the current system. Our democracy would emerge from the ashes the better for it. 

Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at
[email protected].

1 COMMENT

  1. I appreciate your highlighting the origins of extreme partisan gerrymandering and the problems it creates for voters and our representative democracy. The situation is particularly egregious in Pennsylvania. A recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice found, “Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania consistently have the most extreme levels of partisan bias” in the way boundaries for their legislative districts are set.

    As a result of extreme partisan gerrymandering, Democrats in Pennsylvania have been disenfranchised. Our voice in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., is not commensurate with our 800,000+ edge in registered voters our our share of the votes cast in election after election.

    Perhaps the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and/or the Supreme Court will put an end to extreme partisan gerrymandering. Ultimately, structural change in the redistricting process is needed — such as having independent citizen commissions draw the boundaries — to protect voters from having one party control the process in a given state.

    I also appreciate your referring to the program Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania is hosting on Nov. 1, featuring David Daley, author of Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy. The event is intended to help people better understand how Pennsylvania got to this position, and more importantly, what we can do to fix this problem.

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