When leaders announce decisions, they often pretend they had no choice but to do what they did.

“The numbers are the numbers,” they’ll say.   Or: “This decision was driven by the facts.”

Fact is: Any decision about, for example, a government budget hinges on much more than just numbers.

Budgets are more than just rows and columns of digits.  They are statements of values. Those value are embedded inside every zero and decimal point.

The numbers themselves do not force a government executive or legislature to cut a program — or to raise taxes to sustain that program.  

True, the numbers may set up and frame a difficult a choice.

But the fateful decisions made by the people in charge are based primarily on those leaders’ values.  Their values tell them: This is more important than that; this can be sacrificed in order for that to be preserved.

More than just a line

It’s the same way with election districts.  They are not just lines on a map. They are also statements of values.

Laws and legal standards put some guardrails on the mapping process, but those limits leave a lot of room for values to come into play. This can produce either partisan mischief or sound democracy.

The legislative leaders who drew wildly gerrymandered maps in 2011 would like you to believe that they had no choice, that some mysterious set of unavoidable facts forced them to make Donald Duck kick Goofy, compelled them to divide Berks County among four congressional districts.

No. Their values made them do it.

They valued their own incumbency above your right to fair, competitive elections.

They valued pumping up the power of their political team over having a functional legislature.

They valued the chance to settle a score with a colleague who had annoyed them far more than they cared about your sense of community interest.


Cartoon of a man drowning in a sea of 01s and 0s.
Image Credit: Illustration by Rob Tornoe

Find your values

A key goal of the push to reform Pennsylvania’s redistricting process is to enable voters like you to articulate what values you’d like election maps to embody.

This would make both the process and the result sharply superior to what we’ve seen the last two decades.

That said, recognize this: This work of democratic deliberation is actually trickier than it might seem.

When citizen mappers begin moving their cursors to draw their lines,  a number of legitimate values will jostle for their attention.  

That delicate balance

They will soon discover that no one map can honor equally all the worthwhile goals that a person could bring to the mapping table.

For example, if you hold up “minority representation” as a priority, you’ll probably find it hard to make your districts as neat and compact as others would prefer.  Similarly, well-known “communities of interest” such as the Main Line, the Mon Valley or the Poconos don’t respect county and municipal boundaries as perfectly as sticklers on the issue of “jurisdictional splits” would demand.

So, what are all these goals that elbow one another for position as election maps get drawn?

Here are eight of the most common ones.  In this companion piece, each value gets a basic definition and some discussion of how it comes into play.