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HONESDALE, PA— Diana Dakey of Fair Districts PA (FDPA) hosted a meet and greet event at Irving Cliff Brewery on Tuesday, July 23 with an urgent message about Pennsylvania’s electoral system: “Pennsylvania is one of the most gerrymandered states in the country.”
Wayne County residents who attended felt strongly about that point. “Ending gerrymandering is one of the most important things in our democracy,” Joann Puskarsik of Starlight, PA said.
Gerrymandering, the strategic drawing of electoral districts to give one political party an advantage over the other, happens every 10 years at both the state and federal level. Members of the majority party in the PA General Assembly redraw districts, impacting the weight of a constituent’s vote depending on the county they live in. In other words, gerrymandering lets politicians choose who gets to vote for them.
Dakey said that because Pennsylvania is a swing state, it’s been the target of heavy gerrymandering, especially throughout the past decade. Last January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found the state’s congressional district map unconstitutional and mandated a less gerrymandered version.
That doesn’t solve the problem, Dakey and others say. Critics of gerrymandering, who see it as a bipartisan issue, argue that it hurts not only the voters, whose role in the political process has been minimized, but also the politicians who face gridlock as a result.
The PA Supreme Court decision last year is how Democrat Matt Cartwright came to represent the Eighth Congressional District in Washington, DC. At a town hall in Honesdale, he called gerrymandering one of the two greatest threats to democracy. When districts are drawn fairly, he said, it’s easier to find compromises across the aisle.
“The rank-and-file legislators are often times just as much victims of gerrymandering as are we citizens,” Dakey said. “They are not the ones who are in the backroom with the party-hired mapmakers drawing these gerrymandered districts.”
Some thought the PA court’s decision was the end of the state’s gerrymandering problems.
“My neighbors have been saying they’re not worried about gerrymandering anymore because they love Cartwright as our representative,” Puskarsik said at the meet and greet Tuesday, “but that’s not how it works, is it?”
Dakey had a detailed response to the question, but in short order her answer was firm: No, that’s not how it works at all.
The Supreme Court map is not a permanent fix, she said. After 2021, when a new census has been completed, the congressional districts will be redrawn and the map will change again. What’s more, Dakey said, people think gerrymandering is only a problem on the federal level, and disregard the issue for state-level representatives.
Two pieces of legislation in the PA House right now, bills 22 and 23, could transform the way the state draws its maps.
HB 23 would create an independent citizens’ commission of 11 people to draw federal congressional districts for the state. According to FDPA’s literature on the bill, the idea of the commission would be to reduce conflicts of interest by using average citizens rather than politicians; including more diverse points of view by selecting eight members from both major parties and three members not affiliated with either; and enhancing transparency by allowing public input before and after maps are drawn.
HB 22 would use that same citizen commission to do redistricting at the state level. That bill would require an amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution, a lengthy process unnecessary for passing HB 23.
“We are going to need our legislators to show political courage,” Dakey said. She called gerrymandering a “potent partisan weapon” that neither major party is eager to give up.
Dakey urged residents of Wayne County to call or write their state representatives and ask them to support bills 22 and 23.