Defeating Pa. Incumbents Won't Be Easy
Published August 24th 2005 in Chambersburg Public Opinion

Voters throughout Franklin County and the state have pledged to vote against incumbents whenever they come up for re-election because the elected officials gave themselves generous pay raises last month.

In order for voters to get the changes they want, a lot of Republicans will have to vote against Republican incumbents and a lot of Democrats will have to vote against Democratic incumbents.

That's because of the political process known as gerrymandering, which has been in Pennsylvania since the early 18th Century. It stacks the deck in favor of incumbents, making elections less competitive.

Every 10 years, after the Census Bureau completes its survey of the U.S. population, House districts are redrawn to reflect where people live. State legislatures redraw the districts — leaving the process open to political maneuverings designed to give one party an edge. It's known as "gerrymandering" because Elbridge Gerry, a Massachusetts lawmaker, pioneered the practice in the early 1800s.

Pennsylvania's redistricting practices have been shameful, as they have been in other states, though Pennsylvania's last redistricting ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

By a 5-4 vote, the Court said redistricting is not unconstitutional, though the judges were critical of Pennsylvania's.

In Pennsylvania, fewer than 10 of the 203 state House seats, and only two or three of the 50 Senate seats are competitive in any given election cycle.

Republicans also took advantage of their control in Harrisburg to help Republicans in Congress.

The Legislature drew congressional boundary lines more favorable to Republicans by merging districts in a manner so that six Democrats had to run against each other. Montgomery County near Philadelphia was carved into six districts.

As a result, Republicans now hold 12 of Pennsylvania's 19 House seats, even though there are more Democrats in Pennsylvania — largely in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas.

Out of 435 House seats, only 10 elections were decided by fewer than 5 percentage points last fall, according to FairVote, a nonpartisan group working to promote competitive elections. Only seven incumbents lost their seats to challengers, and only 13 seats switched from one party to the other.

It was the least competitive election ever for House races, the group found.

"Rather than the constituents electing the members of the legislatures across the land and the Congress, the members of the Congress and legislatures elect their constituents," said Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., a supporter of reform.

With computer programs that analyze voting patterns and demographic data, mapmakers design districts almost guaranteed to elect members from a particular party. In the process, neighbors can wind up being represented by different lawmakers.

For incumbents to lose, challengers need to emerge from their own party, or voters have to vote against their preferred party. That won't be easy in regions like Franklin County, where many people vote a straight-party ticket.

There is another long-term approach to making elections more competitive, but it would require legislative approval, which isn't likely in Pennsylvania.

State Rep. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, has proposed legislation that would strive to remove politics from gerrymandering, as Iowa has done.

Leach's proposal would create a nine-member commission: four Democrats and four Republicans appointed by caucus leaders, and one registered independent who is appointed by the other eight members. Seven of the members would have to approve of the redistricting plan.

The idea would be to prohibit political advantage or disadvantage to any political party, incumbent or challenger as a consideration in a draft redistricting plan.

Voting districts would have to meet a specific definition of "compact and contiguous." The Legislature would have up-or-down approval or rejection, with no amendments.

Elections would be more competitive, increasing voter turnout, and government would be more responsive to what voters want.

It's ironic that the U.S. wants to spread democracy to Iraq and elsewhere, but allows gerrymandering to occur here at home.

It's time to bring an end to current practices that take power away from voters.