It's not about the map
Reapportionment is a strange word for a bizarre process that is complicated, confusing and highly suspicious. Today, it remains one of the most controversial and frustrating exercises in democracy. Only one thing is certain: reapportionment and redistricting are guaranteed by the United States Constitution to drive voters crazy and drive politicians out of office.
In the next few weeks, the redistricting process will end for Pennsylvania and 49 other states. There will be no closing ceremonies to extinguish the Olympic flame of political games. From sea to shining sea, redistricting always ends the same way: like professional wrestlers playing a dysfunctional game of musical chairs.
Before our U.S. Constitution abruptly stops the music, let me try to dispel some of the worst misconceptions and misgivings voters have about reapportionment. Let's start with what we "know" about a process that we will never fully understand.
#1 Reapportionment is a strange word only politicians use.
Did you "reapportion" all of your clocks when Daylight Savings Time started at the beginning of November? Did you "reapportion" the oven temperature and cooking time so your Thanksgiving turkey was ready when your guests were ready to eat? Don't worry, neither did I.
Reapportionment is one of those words you rarely use. A normal person rarely even hears the word "reapportionment" used in an actual conversation -- maybe a handful of times during his or her lifetime. As a result, reapportionment only seems to occur when politicians in Harrisburg start arguing about it. That is, after all, how news is made -- and how voters generally find out about their state legislators behaving badly. So, voters are conditioned to associate this strange word solely in the context of power-hungry politicians full of evil motives and bad intent committing dirty politics in broad daylight.
#2 Reapportionment always starts with a mathematical calculation performed at the federal level.
We all know the very first words spoken at the birth of our country: "We, the people . . ." All of the numbers and data collected by the Census Bureau every ten years really is the very definition of "America" -- its people. But, don't get "lost in the sauce" of all those population figures. The only number you really need to remember is 435. That's the number of seats in the United States Congress. Reapportionment always begins and ends with counting to 435.
Reapportionment follows census data like a recipe to serve up 435 new slices of political power (seats in Congress) to voters in all 50 states. Instead of merely shuffling the cards, so to speak, after each decennial census, reapportionment opens up a shiny new deck of 435 cards that are dealt out to voters in all 50 states.
The "magical," mathematical calculation involved is an algorithmic formula called "the method of equal proportions." While this method has been used in every census since 1940, different methods have been employed over the past 200 years.
Under the method of equal proportions, each state is first assigned one congressional seat. Then the mathematical calculation is used to allocate the remaining 385 congressional seats -- one at a time -- among the 50 states until all 435 seats are assigned.
#3 Redistricting means never having to say you're sorry -- because the constitution made you do it.
If reapportionment is a math formula, redistricting is always a roll of the political dice for state legislators. Redistricting means drawing new election districts. The US Constitution requires all 50 states to "re-draw" election districts within their borders every ten years to conform to the latest US census. Those new election districts -- for 18 US Congressmen, 50 State Senators and 203 State Representatives -- do not even exist until they all "fit" within the brand new map of Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania voters will lose another seat in Congress this year based upon the 2010 census data. Since 1970, the number of congressmen representing our Commonwealth in Washington has steadily declined from 27 seats to just 18 seats.
Following the 2010 census, ten states lost clout (seats) in Congress. Most states (32) stayed the same. But, eight states gained more clout by picking up the 12 seats that those ten other states lost. Generally speaking, "sunbelt states" continue to gain new seats in Congress as population growth flows mainly "out west" and "down south."
#4 The very first "gerrymander" was discovered in Massachusetts in 1811.
Most voters learn how to recognize a gerrymander before they're even old enough to vote. So, after 200 years of being able to spot one when we see it, why aren't these treacherous gerrymanders extinct by now? How many more of these diabolical creatures do we need to kill before they're finally exterminated?
That's really what tests voters' patience and drives voters' outrage. How many more times are those politicians going to say that a gerrymander is not a gerrymander -- even when it's right in front of their nose? Voters are very intelligent. They instinctively suspect that back-stabbing, ruthless, power-grabbing intentions and political maneuvering might explain why those new lines on the new map were obviously drawn in places where they don't belong. Most of the time, the voters are right.
But, just because you and I can recognize a living, breathing gerrymander when we see it, you still can't kill it. Only the Supreme Court can kill a real gerrymander -- and only when it violates our constitutional voting rights as Americans.
Unless the Supreme Court steps in to squash the ugly critter, a gerrymander will only die if you remove it from its natural habitat of democracy. I won't be surprised if political scientists uncover archaeological evidence to suggest that gerrymanders could survive a nuclear war, just like roaches. Don't despair. In a few short weeks, gerrymandering will once again be prohibited in Pennsylvania for another ten years.
#5 Computer technology has made redistricting more precisely inconsistent, erratic and unpredictable -- but, in a very efficient manner.
We've come a long way from when political hacks used colored pencils to settle old political scores. But, just because they now use the newest 2010 TIGER/line Shapefiles for Pennsylvania released by the U.S. Census Bureau doesn't mean redistricting is easier or even "better" today than it was 100 years ago. There are just tinier devils hidden in tinier details.
Most voters really don't care if the state legislature uses the latest geospatial 3-D satellite technology or an old Ouija board to draw the new redistricting map. As long as it makes some sense to voters that election districts must change when the population of voters change, the map may look ugly, but it's not going to haunt anybody in their dreams.
However, voters tend to get irritated when every redistricting map always looks exactly like a kindergarten drawing of a hippopotamus riding a bicycle eating an ice-cream cone. No matter what the constitution says, the map will always be controversial. No matter how precise the census numbers may become, redistricting will always be a brutal, nasty and messy process -- just like democratic elections.
So, why can't we just input US census data into a computer, push a button and have it spit out a perfect map, unsoiled by the hands of dirty, scheming politicians? For the same reason, I'm afraid, that we don't just use some sophisticated software to simply "compute" who is most qualified to be your Mayor, your Tax Collector or your voice on the local school board. No computer ever made has come with a built-in, inalienable right to vote -- which we all have as American citizens.
#6 There is no such thing as a "safe district."
That's the conventional wisdom, sure. A "safe" district means that a sitting Senator or House member has such an electoral advantage over any prospective opponent that it's almost mathematically impossible to derive how they could possibly lose. That's called "packing," by the way.
But, packing any district with "too many" Democrats or "too many" Republicans is always dangerous. It may provide a false sense of security in upcoming general elections, but it usually provides for a very contested primary election.
That may seem counter-intuitive to most voters, but let me refresh your memory. The two most powerful Senators in Pennsylvania were defeated after creating what they perceived to be a "safe district" following the 2001 redistricting process.
Senate Majority Leader Chip Brightbill was one of the five members of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission ten years ago. If anyone had the power to create a "safe district," you would assume that someone who held the deciding vote on approving the final map could possibly be accommodated within certain legal constraints. But, both the Senate Majority Leader and the Senate Pro Tempore (Senator Bob Jubelirer) were soundly defeated in the Primary elections of 2006.
There is no such thing as a "safe district," nor should there be. Pennsylvania's 50 State Senate districts belong to the voters of Pennsylvania. A seat in the state legislature or in the US Congress is an honor and a privilege, not some "piece of property" for anyone to claim they "own."
#7: It's really and truly not all about "the map."
If you ever sat in the passenger seat watching your spouse mutilate a road map or misread simple directions while going 65 miles an hour along your way to getting lost, you know that the map is usually not the real problem.
However, the map is what everyone is fixated on. Voters ultimately judge whether the redistricting process was fair or "fixed" with their own eyes. Just as beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, so does evidence of a perceived political advantage for one party over the other. It may not be an accurate Rorschach test, but voters usually project what they expect to see onto the map -- and actually seeing the map only confirms their expectations and deepens their distrust of scheming, ruthless politicians.
Most incumbents would give an awful lot to avoid redistricting altogether. Change always means uncertainty when it comes to political survival. I've served in the state legislature since 1994. I have yet to meet a single State Senator or State Representative who "drew their own district" or had one tailor-made exactly to their liking.
That's because there are too many variables involved in the redistricting process. Dividing the residents of Pennsylvania into 50 senate districts of equal population is just the beginning of the political calculus involved in redistricting. Once you get beyond crunching those numbers, state and federal courts demand "maintaining contiguity" and "compactness," which numbers alone cannot fully describe.
Minority representation must also be protected in those districts where minorities make up the majority of the voters. Each district must also maintain existing "communities of interest" without splitting local subdivisions or violating the natural borders of local geography.
#8 Change may be inevitable, but redistricting is unavoidable.
No one likes redistricting, but any redistricting is better than no redistricting. Is the process influenced by partisan politics? Of course, it is. That's why incumbents traditionally "choose" to retire before the map changes and Cinderella's carriage turns back into a pumpkin.
The reapportionment of congressional districts in Pennsylvania starts with a complicated calculation performed by the US Census Bureau. But, a simple majority vote in the House and the Senate, followed by the Governor's signature, is all it takes to carve congressional districts in cement for the next ten years. Even though there are currently 19 members of the US Congress from Pennsylvania, the new redistricting map will only contain 18 congressional districts. That means somebody loses -- and, unfortunately, it's usually the voters who lose a voice on their behalf in Congress.
On the other hand, the number of state House districts (203) and state Senate districts (50) remains fixed by Pennsylvania's state constitution. Unless and until a constitutional amendment reduces the size of the state legislature, there will always be 253 legislative seats subject to redistricting by a five-member "Legislative Reapportionment Commission" appointed every ten years.
#9 Everything is connected to everything -- especially those things what the map does not reveal.
Cynical voters tend to see scheming, treacherous and ruthless motives behind every redistricting map they've ever seen -- no matter which party happens to be holding all the Crayons. Despite all the hype about legislative redistricting being "one step short of actual violence," the process actually demands compromise and accommodation.
Ten years ago, I went to court because the city of Easton was cut out of the 18th district and put into the 24th district. Ten years later, the new map (if approved) will put Easton back into the 18th district with the city of Bethlehem. Does that mean I feel "vindicated"? Or simply realize that the more things change, the more things stay the same? Both, of course!
Unless you are a devoted (or obsessed) conspiracy theorist, don't try to connect all the dots using your secret de-coder ring. There will always be an "obvious" anomaly somewhere on the map that "stands out," like a monkey wrench sticking out of Mona Lisa's forehead. Instead of looking at what stands out, try to see what was left out and what's not there. There is always a ripple effect involved in redistricting. As soon as you move the boundaries for one district, the boundaries for every other district -- especially neighboring districts -- must be moved, as well. That's why the constitutional requirements for all of a state's election districts take sheer precedence over the individual wishes of any incumbent seeking to ensure an unfair political advantage over possible opponents.
#10 Redistricting will always be a Rubik's Cube of brutal, political reality.
Even with all of its obvious defects and drawbacks, it serves a vital purpose to protect and preserve the democracy we have all inherited called, "the land of the free and the home of the brave."