Fixing Our Districts

(I've posted this over at Kos and MyDD, but I'm posting it here with some added comments relating to Philadelphia and what we can do to fix this)

Today, I had to make copies. A simple enough task, I drove to the Staples, about 10 minutes from me, to go and make them. It cost less than a dollar. There was absolutely nothing special about the trip, one to a shopping center I visit quite frequently. The only notable thing about it is just how nonsensical our elected officials treat the issue of representation.

My house sits a couple minutes outside of the town of West Chester, PA. In fact, where I am, I have a West Chester address. I live in the Sixth Congressional District (represented by Republican Jim Gerlach). The Sixth, which is one of the most poorly drawn districts in the country, runs from where I live in the southern tip, up through Chester County, into Montgomery County – stretching all the way down to the Philadelphia border – up through Berks County (where it includes Reading) and all the way up into Lehigh County. The Sixth is a geographic nightmare, and consists of an extremely heterogeneous group of constituents. Affluent suburbs, the Main Line, the Chester County exurbs, significant rural areas, blue color cities, the Amish, and urban populations. In some cases, it cuts through townships just to avoid certain Democratic areas. It was a district drawn for one reason: electing Jim Gerlach to Congress.

My district comes about 45 seconds after I leave my house: the Pennsylvania Sixteenth. The 16th is represented by Republican Joe Pitts. The 16th begins and ends where the 6th does: part of Reading in the north and the entirety of West Chester in the south. But in between, it stretches west and south, to include the entirety of rural Lancaster County. The Philadelphia suburbs and the Harrisburg suburbs share one Congressman. The district cuts south around my township (which used to be included in it) and then through the southern precincts of a neighboring township to reach up and grab West Chester – a Democratic performing enclave in this highly Republican district.

After driving through the Borough of West Chester for a few minutes, I come out into the Seventh Congressional District (represented by Democrat Joe Sestak). The 7th includes most of Delaware County, except for the highly Democratic performing city of Chester, which is thrown into the 1st District – representing Philadelphia. It reaches out into Chester County to grab the eastern portion of it, then up into Montgomery County, taking parts of the Main Line and King of Prussia.

One town, three districts. West Chester (not the borough, but the overall area) is split into three separate districts, ranging from the most rural to the urban, the blue collar to the affluent, the center of the state to edge of Philadelphia. And why is this the case? To elect more Republicans.

For our friends in the city, you know very well how serious a problem this is. As bad of a job as our state does with Congressional districts, they do even worse with State Senate and House districts. Maybe the most blatant gerrymander in the state is right in the Northeast, with the Perzel district. Granted, I don't think anyone is surprised that the worst example of something involves John Perzel.

Gerrymandering is a serious problem effecting both our commonwealth and our country. Areas with similar makeups and concerns are split for no valid reason. Districts are drawn to avoid competition (and representatives who don't need to worry about re-election don't stay responsive for long). Corruption, partisan and ideological extremism, and representatives losing touch with their constituents are common results. And this is most definitely a bipartisan problem. Democrats, as well as Republicans, frequently throw away the ideals that should govern redistricting: compactness, contiguity, local government boundaries and communities of shared interest . Instead they reach for either partisan gain (as was the case in PA during the last redistricting) or for personal gain, by drawing seats that make incumbents virtually unbeatable.

There are a great amount of cures to this. Unfortunately, as the Supreme Court has ruled, the Constitution is not one of them. Non-partisan redistricting is going to have to come from the bottom up, by citizens of all parties demanding that their state legislatures adopt new tactics. Some states already have. Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and Washington use independent commissions. Iowa uses a legislative staff to do it, but they are governed by laws that require them to avoid splitting political subdivisions (such as counties and cities) as well as keeping it contiguous & compact. Moreover, they are forbidden by law to draw for partisan or incumbency advantage. In fact, they are not even given the data of where incumbents live or the registration of the voters. All they have are population head counts. Look at how Pennsylvania's Congressional districts look. Now look at Iowa's. Big difference. And, not surprisingly, Iowa has some of the most competitive races in the country.

Non-partisan redistricting is not a panacea for our democratic woes. Only through attacking all the problems, from how elections are financed to how they are conducted, will we be able to fix things. But this is a problem, it is one we can fix, and it is one we need to fix. It is time for representatives to stop picking their voters, and for the voters to go back to picking their representatives.

This is an issue we need to rally behind. Here in Chester County, I plan on making a serious push to support non-partisan redistricting. We also need to pressure our representatives. If a member of the General Assembly wants our help in getting reelected, they need to commit to reforming the redistricting process. If they don't, then they need to be prepared to face candidates that do.

It is also essential that we seize the opportunity that we have. There are quite a few new Democratic representatives in Harrisburg (I had the pleasure of meeting one, Tony Payton, this past weekend). Many of them are interested in reform. The state, as a whole, is interested in reform. And right now we're building a movement of progressive young activists. A committed fight to get a change in redistricting is needed, it's needed now, and it is a fight we can win.

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