By: Daylin Leach
As a Pennsylvania legislator, I am keenly aware of how desperately we need political reform. Pennsylvania has no campaign finance limits, no lobbyist disclosure law, no automatic calendar to assure that all legislators with good ideas can get a vote on their bills. However, as important as all these issues are, they pale in comparison to the most important political reform we need. The reform of which I speak is so important, that nothing short of the survival of our democracy is at stake. (I hope I have injected sufficient suspense into this editorial.) I am of course speaking of Redistricting Reform.
Essentially, the problem is this: At least once every ten years the constitution requires us to redraw the boundary lines of state legislative and congressional districts. This is necessary because certain areas grow and others lose population. Since all districts must have the same number of people in them, lines must be redrawn to reflect these changes. Where we chose to draw the lines has a profound effect on who can, and who cannot win a seat in the newly-drawn district. Politicians draw the lines in order to guarantee that their party will win as many seats as possible and that as few seats as possible are competitive. This process is called Gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering has always been with us. The term comes from a congressional district approved by an early 19th century governor of Massachusetts named Elbridge Gerry. The district was so oddly shaped that it looked like a salamander and was called a “Gerrymander”. The term stuck, eclipsing whatever other accomplishments poor Elbridge had. Recently however, with new redistricting supercomputers, gerrymandering has become an art form. Districts now perform so reliably that we have almost eliminated competitive elections in this country.
In congress, out of 435 seats that are up for election every two years, about 410 are considered completely safe for one party or another. Stated another way, about 95% of incumbent congresspersons never face seriously contested general elections. It’s no better in Pennsylvania; out of 203 State House seats, only about 5 or 6 are competitive in any given election cycle. In the rest, a challenger (if you can find one) doesn’t even have a theoretical chance of winning. Sadly, in most of America, the cradle of democracy, incumbent legislators are even safer than their counterparts in the Soviet Politburo were.
Voters no longer choose their politicians. Instead, politicians choose their voters at redistricting time. Thus, safe-for-life incumbents are not accountable. Since their challengers can’t win, they can’t raise money and are given scant coverage by the press. We, as voters, are denied vigorous debates on critical issues. This is an OUTRAGE!! A number of years ago people became outraged out congressmen bouncing checks or getting free haircuts. These small acts of venality were wrong (especially considering the quality of the haircuts). But the outrage against them was misplaced in the face of the theft of our ability to meaningfully participate in our democracy.
Fortunately someone (me actually!) is doing something about this. On April 5 I am introducing legislation to reform the way we do redistricting in Pennsylvania. My bill will go a long way towards removing politics from the process and will completely eliminate districts that look drunken gecko. It’s complicated, but basically I create a non-partisan commission that requires a super majority (7 out of 9 votes) to approve a redistricting plan. Any consideration of the advantage to any party or incumbent would be illegal. The legislature would have to approve the plan, but they could not amend even one comma of it. If they reject a plan, the commission drafts a second one. It the legislature rejects the second one, the State Supreme Court would impose one of the two. The bill also creates a mathametical formula whereby a dot is drawn in the geographic center of the district and a circle drawn around the district. The district itself would have to fill in a percentage of the circle, which makes districts look much more like squares, as it should be.
Iowa was the first state to reform their redistricting process. It worked so well that in 2004, 4 out of 5 of Iowa’s congressional seats were competitive. That is more competitive districts than California, New York and Pennsylvania combined. Governor Schwarzenegger in California has now taken up the banner for reform as well. However, the leaders of both parties in most states oppose reform because it takes power away from them. The only way this will pass in Pennsylvania is if you become angry and demand your democracy back. Tell the politicians that if they give us that, they can start getting their haircut for free again.