For both congressional and legislative districts, Pennsylvania’s maps are some of the most distorted in the union — what is commonly known as gerrymandering. Armed with data and specialized software, and usually operating in secret, the political party in power is able to either pack voters of the other party into a few districts, so as to contain their influence, or to crack a few districts and sprinkle opposing voters among them, diffusing their impact in any one district. The result? Representatives have little incentive to listen to opposition or work across the aisle.
On many important issues, substantial segments of the public support compromise solutions: public education, taxes, economic growth, gun violence, climate change. Instead, these issues fall hostage to this toxic political climate. Gerrymandering has become the bug in the operating system of democracy.
What are the consequences of Pennsylvania’s highly warped, partisan maps?
At the first level, elections, Pennsylvanians rarely get to vote in competitive elections where multiple points of view are robustly contested by qualified candidates. In 2014, three of 18 congressional seats went uncontested in the general election, and of the rest, only one race was decided by a margin of less than 20 percent (12.6 percentage points).
The results can fail to an extreme degree to reflect actual voting. For example, in 2012, Pennsylvania’s Democratic congressional candidates drew more votes than Republican candidates by a narrow margin (50 to 49 percent), but Republicans won 13 of 18 seats. Conversely, Democratic operatives and donors from across the country are zeroing in on Pennsylvania as their primary battleground for tilting the playing field back in their favor in 2021 — Barack Obama and Eric Holder have already indicated redistricting will be one of their primary political activities in his post-presidency. There will be a flood of outside money coming into the Commonwealth in a massive arms’ race between the two parties. Pennsylvania voters will be caught in the crossfire.
At the second level, legislating, gerrymandering is a prime cause of increased partisanship, gridlock and failure to do the people’s business. When elected officials fear election challenges only from the extreme fringes of their parties and not from across the aisle, they have less incentive to work with members of the other party to get the people’s business done.