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What’s Fair Is Fair. Except in Politics?

February 7, 2021

The original Gerry-mander: 1812 cartoon of a district in Massachusetts, a salamander-like shape that the artist named after Governor Elbridge Gerry

Regular readers of this blog (both of you) may have noticed that it’s become increasingly political over the years. Like almost all sentient Americans, I’ve been sucked into the partisan fray. Even my recent fiction, such as The Bourgeois Anarchist (forthcoming from Finishing Line Press), tends to have political themes.

In real life, I’ve become involved with the Philadelphia branch of Fair Districts PA (FDPA), a nonprofit, nonpartisan, all-volunteer organization aimed at ending gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It’s a spinoff of the state’s chapter of the League of Women Voters, and like the League, it’s very polite and well-behaved, sometimes to the frustration of our more ardent activists who’d like to get up in the faces of our idiot legislators.

The mantra of FDPA goes like this: Gerrymandering—the drawing of legislative district maps to favor one party or the other—fosters the extreme partisanship we see today, which leads to gridlock in the legislature, which means no progress on dozens of major issues. Why is this true? Gerrymandering creates safe seats, that is, seats that will always be won by a particular party. A politician in a safe seat has no incentive to listen to voters in the other party or to compromise with colleagues across the aisle. The only threat to that legislator’s job is a primary, and to make sure he doesn’t face a strong primary challenge, he’ll cozy up to his party’s leaders, to the “core” voters of the party, and to the big donors. You can see why this process pushes Republicans to the right and Democrats to the left. You can also see why it discourages people from voting—if the outcome is predetermined, why bother?

By the way, if I use male pronouns to refer to our state legislators, it’s not just addiction to outdated convention. Our state’s lawmakers are overwhelming male. And white. And middle-aged. They look a lot like the U.S. Senate, which in purely aesthetic terms is not an attractive sight.

In every state, new district maps are drawn every ten years, after the Census. For the last two decades, with each set of maps, Pennsylvania has been one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation. And therefore our legislature—the largest paid one in the country—does very little. It passes few bills. It takes lots of recesses. It even avoids matters that seemingly ought to be bipartisan, such as lead in drinking water. (We have 18 cities with more lead than Flint, Michigan, but that statistic can’t get the lead out of the legislature.)

Though gerrymandering has been around since 1812, it’s worse than ever because of two tools that have come into play in this century: Big Data, which allows map drawers to pinpoint the locations of each party’s voters, and inexpensive mapping software, which makes it easy to output a map that meets whatever biased criteria you input. In 2011 an obscure GOP strategist named Thomas Hofeller helped Republicans draw maps that would ensure their domination of both the Pennsylvania legislature and the state’s congressional seats. Unfortunately, they got so greedy that the state Supreme Court—after it turned Democratic in 2015—threw out the congressional maps, though the warped districts for state House and state Senate remained.

When maps are redrawn this year, Pennsylvania will face an odd situation. For the congressional maps, Republicans still have an initial advantage. Re-elected in their gerrymandered districts, they still control both houses of the state legislature, and the new maps will be drawn by their caucus leaders, presumably in secret. However, the legislation establishing the new maps has to be signed by the governor, a Democrat. Standoff? You bet. Though compromise has been anathema to both sides lately, that seems to be the only possible outcome.

For state House and state Senate maps, the process is entirely different. A five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC) draws up the maps, and the governor has no say in the matter. The LRC is composed of the majority and minority leaders of both House and Senate, or their designates—that’s two Democrats and two Republicans—plus a fifth member, the chair. The fifth member can be chosen by agreement among the first four. Of course they won’t agree, and in that case the fifth member, the deciding vote, is appointed by the state Supreme Court, which is now—as noted above—dominated by Democrats. Thus we’re poised for a Democratic gerrymander, vengeance for what the Republicans did in 2011.

For years now, Fair Districts has backed legislation to stop gerrymandering by either party. So far, the majority Republicans in Harrisburg have resisted, even though their own seats will be subject to Democrats’ revenge. It seems like pure stupidity, doesn’t it? Sometimes I think it’s an Alamo mentality. These old white guys see themselves as Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie defending the Alamo. The place is surrounded by Santa Anna’s troops, but will they negotiate? No way! They’ll go down in glory, six-guns blazing, coonskin caps perched jauntily on their bloodied skulls.

If Republicans are being so obstinate, what about the Democrats? Some progressive Dems do agree that redistricting ought to be fair, but many of the leaders hesitate to embrace such a radical idea. Reportedly, one Democratic lawmaker has stated, “We bought the Supreme Court [via big political contributions in the 2015 judicial elections], and now we’re going to get our money’s worth.” Another, who represents a high-poverty, mostly African American district, has told FDPA folks that he can’t afford to worry about fairness when his constituents are dying.

That last comment gave me pause. In many ways he’s right: Democratic priorities often involve a fight for life itself. Cops killing young black men. Rampant gun violence. Industries spewing deadly pollutants in minority districts. The opioid epidemic. Not to mention food insecurity in what is supposedly the richest nation on earth. Crummy education because of underfunded schools. Climate change, which will cripple us all if we don’t do something fast.

It’s very tempting, then, to say, “Let’s accept a Democratic gerrymander so we can fix these problems. Once we get that done, we can worry about ‘fairness.’”

But there’s a flaw in that reasoning. The big issues that concern Democrats don’t lend themselves to easy fixes. We can’t pass one bill, or even a dozen, that will end poverty, repair the schools, get guns off the streets, reform the police, etc. etc. These problems require long-term, sustained action, and to accomplish that we need buy-in from both parties, which is not likely until we give politicians a motive to actually do their jobs by making them accountable once more to the people at large rather than to their party leaders.

Take school funding as one example. Our Democratic governor has proposed a budget with additional money for struggling public schools like those in Philadelphia. Our Republican legislature has already dismissed the idea. With a Democratic gerrymander we’d change the balance of power in House and Senate. We’d be able to pass an education-friendly budget for the next ten years—and wouldn’t that represent long-term progress? A full decade to fix the schools! Only problem: the state will elect a new governor next year. Since PA has a habit of alternating parties in the statehouse, there’s a good chance that the next governor will be a Republican who’ll veto any Democratic initiatives. Controlling the legislature will be a hollow victory for Democrats. Moreover, as we’ve seen on a national level with Obamacare, extreme partisanship means that any substantive action by one party gets “weaponized” by the other. Can you imagine the Republican rhetoric if Democrats raise taxes to benefit public schools? You don’t have to be a high-paid political consultant to write the attack ads.

In the end, I come back to the idea of fairness on which Fair Districts was founded. The best road for progress is the high road. Or, as the adage puts it, honesty is the best policy. For the Democrats—my party, dammit—what’s most right is also most practical.

Will the Democrats listen to this complicated reasoning or opt for the easy, short-term advantage? Will Republicans realize that, instead of dying in the Alamo, they could mosey out the back door?

Stay tuned for the exciting news from the state where the USA was born.

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