Street Corner Soapbox: Redistricting Revisited

Category:  Street Corner Soapbox
Thursday, February 9th, 2012 at 10:27 AM
Street Corner Soapbox: Redistricting Revisited by Jay Stevens
aconaway

It wasn't long ago that I wrote about redistricting in these pages, explaining how the political boundaries of Pennsylvania -- along with every other state in the union -- are redrawn after the US Census results come in to adjust for changes in population and voter demographics. It's a messy process marred by gerrymandering, as districts are tugged and stretched into bizarre tetrahedrons to ensure that both incumbents are made safer and the state legislature's majority party remains in control.

This year was no different. We got an ugly politicized redistricting map designed behind closed doors by Republicans and approved of by many Democrats because it moved more left-leaning voters into Democratic districts -- making them safer -- and out of swing districts, making them more likely to go GOP.  Business as usual, you might say. And because so many election-averse Democrats backed the plan, many thought any challenges to it would sail through the courts.

No so fast, pardner! The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the redistricting plan in late January.

Why? Well, no one really knew. Two of the justices in the majority opinion jetted off to Puerto Rico for a short getaway vacation before bothering to pen an explanation of the decision. Legislators were left scratching their collective heads. Without knowing why the maps were being rejected, they couldn't redraw them.

When the justices returned and presented the written decision this past Friday, things became no clearer. Ruling that redistricting was contrary to law because of the "existence of a significant number of political subdivision splits that were not absolutely necessary" -- that is, because Republicans carved up cities or county seats to rig the districts -- the court declined to give any clear guidance or even to list any districts they found abhorrent. Instead they seemed to reverse their own ruling with a breezy recognition that the "Pennsylvania Constitution absolutely permits necessary political subdivision splits, and that some divisions are inevitable."

And given that this thing appears to have been written poolside over fruity drinks, the drafters of the majority opinion displayed a heroic invulnerability to irony when they delivered, stone-faced, this nugget of encouragement: "...we have no doubt that the [committee appointed to draw the redistricting maps] will act in good faith, and with fidelity, in discharging its weighty, difficult constitutional duty...no less than we have in discharging our appellate function."

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania primary is hurtling towards us, and election officials don't yet know which voters fit into which state legislative districts, and candidates don't know which doors to knock on. Some candidates even fear that -- if the 2001 districts are used in the upcoming election -- their houses won't even be in the district they hoped to represent, making them ineligible for that office.

While some hope this mess spurs real redistricting reform, Democrats for one are salivating at the prospect of using current boundaries for the 2012 election -- a political map they've won before, and in a presidential election year that should spur recently dormant left-leaning voters to the polls. No doubt they're hoping that redistricting lands in their laps, and we'll see a whole new batch of gerrymandered districts.

What's lost in all of this back-and-forth wrangling between legislators and courts is, of course, the voter. You. Me.

Erie Reader: Vol. 4, No. 22
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