'It Just Looks Weird, Know What I Mean?' Efforts To Reform Redistricting In PA

Sep 7, 2017

According to the state constitution, congressional districts should be compact, contiguous and respect county lines. But that isn’t exactly the case for Pennsylvania’s 12th.

  • “I’ve never seen a map like this. To me, I would’ve thought a district would be more central,” said June Diehl of rural Somerset County.
  • “It’s horrible. It’s crazy. It’s absolutely crazy,” said Joan Baren Bregg of Sewickley, an affluent suburb in Allegheny County.
  • “It just looks weird, know what I mean?” said Landon Valentine of Beaver County.

Those three Pennsylvanians have at least two things in common. They’re all represented by Republican Keith Rothfus, and they’re all perplexed by the map of Pennsylvania’s 12th.

When Matthew Nance of Beaver Falls took a look at the oddly shaped district that spans six counties, he immediately recognized the culprit as gerrymandering.

“They always kind of figure out where the votes are going to be so they can keep their piece of the pie,” he said.

There are almost a million more Democrats than Republicans registered in Pennsylvania, but Republicans hold a large majority in Pennsylvania's Congressional House seats – 13 out of 18. That’s in part because of gerrymandering. It can happen during the redistricting process, which occurs every 10 years after the census to reflect any change in population.

Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district, which reflects the redistricting that occurred after the 2010 census.
Credit nationalatlas.gov

For congressional districts, a map is drawn and passed as a bill by the Pennsylvania House and Senate and signed by the governor. That gives a clear advantage to the majority party. And nowadays, advanced technology means literally looking at voters house by house to try to manipulate more wins. 

“This is not something you solve overnight,” said Kitsy McNulty, coordinator for the Pittsburgh Chapter of Fair Districts PA.

The non-partisan coalition is fighting to change the redistricting process. Rather than politicians drawing the lines, Fair Districts wants an independent citizens' commission to do it, which is a process California and five other states already have in place.

She is also a plaintiff for a lawsuit from the League of Women Voters. It claims the existing congressional map is unfair and should be totally thrown out. 

McNulty said gerrymandering minimizes the voices of some constituents.

“You can’t vote somebody out if their district is safe, so you can’t hold them accountable,” she said.

Her organizations have been fighting gerrymandering for years with limited public support. McNulty said that changed last November after the presidential election.

“Hundreds of people started showing up at a lecture about redistricting reform," she said. "Who would’ve thought?”

Plenty of Republicans are also joining her effort. Turns out, eliminating gerrymandering has some bipartisan support in the state’s general assembly, too.

Jim Marshall was born and raised in Beaver County, and he's the Republican representative of the state’s 12th legislative district. 

“I’m not concerned about power or security of my seat, I’m concerned about representing the residents of the district,” he said.

Marshall is one of dozens of cosponsors for a bill to create a citizens' commission. There’s also a version in the state Senate. Both have been sitting in committees since May.

Marshall said his constituents feel strongly about reform, calling and sending postcards urging him to back the legislation.

“If the general assembly had past practice of drawing very compact and contiguous districts, then there wouldn’t be an outcry from citizens for this type of change,” he said.

Having compact districts could also make the job easier for some elected officials, Marshall said, like the representative of his neighboring district, which spans three counties and three different sets of county commissioners and conservation districts.

“It would always be easier to have less counties,” said Marshall.

Beaver Falls resident Landon Valentine has a different take: “It’s bad, but here’s the thing -- was it done within the confines of the law?”

Most of the time, gerrymandered maps are legally approved. Maps have been thrown out in the past, but according to the courts, making them “compact and contiguous” is up for interpretation. Although the 12th is a hundred miles wide and dips in and out of counties, it was passed by law. 

In Sewickley, also in the congressional 12th, business owner Keith Recker said no matter who’s drawing the lines, the congressional map shouldn’t be a political device.

“It’s so clearly manipulated,” he said. “It’s so clearly to keep certain people in their legislative jobs and keep certain people out. It has nothing to do with community, it has nothing to do with geographic logic.”

Lawsuits are common following redistricting, but very few are successful. And the citizens' commission legislation will likely need a lot more support from republicans to pass. If none of those efforts succeed, the results of the 2018 midterm election will decide which party takes the lead re-drawing the lines after the 2020 census.