Bethlehem Press

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Groups pushing for fair political districts in Pa.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017 by Brian Myszkowski bmyszkowski@tnonline.com in Local News

In a partnered effort between the League of Women Voters and Fair Districts PA, a citizens’ group discussed gerrymandering Saturday at the Stroud Community Library.

Frederick “Fritz” Walker told the group that Pennsylvania’s practices are in desperate need of a change.

“We are, according to this analysis, the worst state for gerrymandering of our congressional districts,” Walker said.

He was referencing the state’s score of 11 for the Efficiency Gap Standard, which determines if a party had a systemic advantage by evaluating and analyzing votes.

Scores under 12 are generally indicative of gerrymandering.

Political shifts

The practice of drawing district lines to pack party voters in particular areas, or spread the opposition’s voters over several areas, has been part of American politics since 1812.

At that time, Massachusetts Governor Eldridge Gerry instituted the practice, which resulted in a district shaped somewhat like a salamander, hence the name.

Districts are supposed to be drawn to most equally divide constituents. Pennsylvania’s House and Senate districts are constructed by a five-person committee, consisting of four party leaders and a leader appointed by the members.

Walker said that when gerrymandering exists, the focus for the political party in power shifts to winning and maintaining the power, not governing in the best interest of the citizens.

As an example, Walker displayed the mutation of Pennsylvania’s seventh district, regarded as the most gerrymandered district in the country, from 1952 to 2013.

“This is a pretty reasonably shaped district, it’s compact,” Walker said as he pointed to the 1952 version. “It stayed that way for a while, and then it got weirder and weirder.”

As the decades progressed, the district eventually had large irregular chunks augmented by numerous protrusions, some connected by paths that are only a few hundred feet.

“Now, we have this, this Rorschach,” Walker said as he reached the 2013 version. “Somebody looked at that and said, ‘I know what that is! It’s Goofy kicking Donald!’ ”

Computer aided

The practice seems to have developed thanks to advancements in computer technology, along with the development of software like Maptitude, which can be loaded with statistical information and made to draw district lines that provide advantages to a particular party.

Audience member Jeanette Friedman, who moved to Monroe County from Bergen County, New Jersey, said she has seen the effects of gerrymandering and how it can effectively silence a large group of people with unequal representation.

“I haven’t been represented by someone in Congress for over 20 years. It’s gerrymandering that’s disenfranchised me, and a lot of other Democrats in Bergen and Monroe counties,” she said, indicating that legislative seats have been well-protected for some time.

Walker said the solution to this abuse of power is to put redistricting responsibilities in the hands of the people, not the politicians.

Fair Districts PA is supporting redistricting reform legislation backed by Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton and Lehigh, and Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe and Northampton.

Senate Bill 22 would establish an 11-member redistricting commission, populated by volunteers who meet to-be-determined qualifications.

The major political parties would have four representatives each, with three representatives for unaffiliated or third parties.

Reform

This group of commissioners would operate openly, making all information concerning redistricting available to the public, in addition to adhering to a strict timetable. Approval of a plan would require seven votes, with at least one vote per party group.

The bill will have to go through two consecutive legislative sessions to pass, and then be advertised for the public before it is put to a vote.

League of Women Voters member Barbara Keiser said she thinks the most important key to success for the bill will be informing the voters and promoting advocacy.

Informed voters

“Educated voters are better voters, which means better government,” she said.

The other roadblock will be getting those in power to relinquish some of the control.

“The Democrats might say, ‘We have the government in our favor, so why should we change it?’ No, Democrats, we want long-term better government,” Keiser said, pointing out that the statement was merely an example, and that the group’s mission is a bipartisan effort.

The push to pass the bill already has the support of Sen. John Blake, D-22, and Scavello in the local region, though House support is yet to be seen.

“We have a lot of momentum going right now on this issue,” Walker said of the group’s prospects for success. “It’s a heavy lift, I’m not denying that. But, can we do it? The more and more I’m seeing, the more I’m encouraged that we’re going to make this happen.”