• The Gerrymandering Excuse

    Written By: Arnaud Armstrong | @Arnaud996

    Last week, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court, in a ruling consistent with a court whose judges have benefited tremendously from millions in public-sector union donations, handed down a victory to the special interests who point to gerrymandering as the root cause of their electoral incompetence, ruling that the current map of congressional districts is unconstitutional and needs to be redrawn. The decision sparked celebrations among Democratic leaders and their public-sector backers, who hailed it as a victory for democracy, but who, of course, were really celebrating a victory for politics as usual.

    Lost in their celebrations, however, have been any discussion of other possible causes for the steady series of electoral defeats that have wracked the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania since 2010.

    In recent years, as the electoral defeats mounted and the Democratic congressional delegation from Pennsylvania fell from 12 in 2010 to only 5 today, frustrated Democrats have pointed to gerrymandering on the part of Republicans as the cause of their collapse. This is, very simply, utter nonsense. First, let’s consider the fact that the redistricting map completed after the 2010 vote was passed with bipartisan support and the endorsement of a sitting Democrat Congressman. If the redistricting map was as comically biased as Democrats currently claim, shouldn’t they have spoken out when it actually mattered?

    Short memories aren’t the only thing damaging the Democrats’ case, however. They are also suffering from a failure to consider their difficulties in all races. Republicans have been improving their majorities not just on the congressional level, but on the local and state level as well, building strong majorities on local councils and in the State Legislature; one shouldn’t have to remind the Democrats that, in 2016, Pennsylvania went red in a presidential election for the first time in nearly three decades. Perhaps instead of instead of bemoaning the state’s political cartography, the Democrats should turn their attention towards considering why their registration advantage (number of voters registered with one party versus another) fell by over 400,000 between 2008 and 2017.

    Despite all of this, though, I do have a confession to make: I think the current map probably does benefit Republicans. “Aha!” some of you announce, “if he’s admitting that the map gives the Republicans an advantage, then surely it’s unfair to Democrats!” Not quite.

    Let’s consider the last presidential election. In 2016, Hillary Clinton received over 40% of her total votes in the entire state of Pennsylvania from only three counties: Allegheny, Philadelphia and Montgomery. Most of the rest of her vote came from her rural counties where she made a rather pitiful showing, consistently attracting less than 30% of the vote. This is indicative of a serious and growing problem for Democrats in Pennsylvania and around the country: their voters are clumped into cities where, like in Philadelphia, they can receive over 80% of the vote. The result is a situation in which cities remain firmly in the hand of the Democratic leaders, but the Party exerts less influence than ever in the overwhelming majority of remaining geographical space. In short, of course the Democrat Congressional representation is small; the Party is only performing well in a handful of the state’s 67 counties and getting swamped everywhere else.

    Recently, the New York Times did an experiment in which it compared a so-called “non-partisan map” (which is a ridiculous thing to call it considering that the current map had bipartisan support) with the current map. Using 2016 presidential vote counts, they found that, hypothetically, Clinton would have received a majority of votes cast in only one more district (a still weak 7 of 18) in a “non-partisan” map scenario versus the current map. In addition, GOP congressional candidates sometimes outperformed Trump in their districts in 2016 (the Party has 13 representatives but the President only carried 12 districts), so it’s entirely possible that absolutely nothing would have changed if the “non-partisan” map had been used.

    Knowing this, the Democrats have adopted the practice of conflating non-partisan with competitive. Apparently licking their chops at the possibility of a strong overall performance in the coming midterms, Democrats across the country have decided that the best map would be one with as many competitive districts as possible, thereby raising the potential of an enormous swing in states with many competitive districts. In typical Democratic fashion, the Party’s siren song of “fair representation” masks a purely cynical drive for political advantage.

    More importantly, though, it’s critical to consider what the kind of “competitive” map the Democrats are trying to finagle would look like in practice.

    Because their strongholds are, with the exception of Pittsburgh, bunched tightly into the Southeast corner of the state, one would have to get terribly creative with the use of borders to achieve a competitive effect on the scale sought by the Party. It would require dividing Philadelphia and its immediate neighbors and then have their districts jutting out into rural areas far away.

    Certainly such a map would be appreciated by Democrats, but it makes for a very poor way of selecting representatives. When constituents in a district vote on a representative, they are literally voting for the person who will best represent their interests. When districts are created to primarily represent certain groups (i.e. urban vs rural, farm worker vs computer programmer, etc.), it makes the job of the representative easier. If, however, we were to have a district where the interests and ideologies of a farmer in Lancaster, a doctor in Delaware County, and a teacher in Philadelphia all competed fairly evenly, it would make the job of a representative extraordinarily difficult. Worse still, it would risk creating a new generation of completely unprincipled representatives who would vote according to the however the political winds drifted that day.

    The bottom line is this: so long as the Democratic Party relies almost exclusively on cities to win, it cannot reasonably expect to win a majority of the congressional seats in Pennsylvania.

    Instead of whining to the State Supreme Court about the map approved on a bipartisan vote six years ago, Democrats ought to do some introspection and figure out why voters outside the cities are no longer interested in their tired policies and divisive rhetoric. So long as Democrats focus exclusively on a handful of population centers (though I do wish Republicans would try a bit harder to win urban voters) at the expense of the rest of the state, they have only themselves to blame for their electoral failures.