Did gerrymandering rob Pa Democrats of Congressional seats?
November 15, 2012By Dave Davies
When Pennsylvania's Congressional boundaries were re-drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature last year, Democrats complained they were gerrymandered to favor the GOP.
And after the election results came in last Tuesday, Democratic leaders say it's clear they were right.
A a lot of people have noticed that across the country, Democrats got fewer Congressional seats than their voting numbers would suggest.
Daniel Denvir of the City Paper was the first one I saw who did the math for Pennsylvania. It's pretty simple: Add up two columns of 18 numbers, and you find that the total votes cast for Democratic candidates in the state's Congressional districts turns out to be about 75,000 more than the number cast for Republican candidates, a bare majority.
But even though the Republican Congressional candidates got fewer votes than Democratic candidates, the GOP captured all but five of the state's 18 Congressional seats. Democratic State Sen. Daylin Leach publicized the same numbers this week and called for a change in the way Pennsylvania draws Congressional boundaries.
"People should know that their votes are being stolen from them by this gerrymandering process," Leach told me, "so that power brokers pick their leaders rather than they picking their leaders themselves."
Not so fast, GOP leaders say
There is another side to the story, of course.
I contacted Republican leaders in Harrisburg, and they sent a chart showing that in two-thirds of Pennsylvania's Congressional districts, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans.
If Democrats had simply held service, to use the tennis metaphor, they said, they'd have a majority of the state's Congressional delegation. Leach says that's baloney, that Republicans drew districts based on how people vote, not how they're registered.
"You can't look at registration numbers, You have to look at performance numbers. Everyone in politics knows that," Leach said. "And these districts were drawn to be heavily Republican-performing, except for five of them where they dumped all the Democrats they could."
In Pennsylvania, Congressional re-districting is done like any other piece of legislation, which means that if Republicans control both houses of the legislature and the governor's mansion, they can pretty much have their way. And it's interesting that across the river in New Jersey, where re-districting is done by an appointed commission, the results are much more proportional: Democrats got 54 percent of the Congressional vote, and the state's Congressional delegation is an even split — six Democrats and six Republicans.
It doesn't have to be this way
Princeton professor Nolan McCarty, who studies Congressional re-districting and results nationwide told me that if you look at states that don't leave re-districting up to the legislature, you see a pattern.
"They all tend to have results that are all much closer to expected," McCarty said.
In those states, he said, the number of Congressional seats parties win is closer to the proportion of votes they get. There are a number of alternatives to re-drawing boundaries through state legislation. Some states have a commission like New Jersey, where each party has an equal number of representatives, and they choose a mutually acceptable tie-breaker. In others, courts draw the lines. And in some, legislators re-draw the maps but need a supermajority, so both parties have to agree.
I spoke to Dominic Pileggi, the Republican leader of the Pennsylvania State Senate, who said the Republicans' performance in Pennsylvania is mostly "a bi-product of the geography of Pennsylvania."
Philadelphia is a densely populated, heavily Democratic city, he said, and if you draw districts to keep those urban communities intact, you end up with lop-sided Democratic seats in the city and more competitive districts elsewhere, where Republicans have performed well.
"So you end up with Republican wins in small margins in many of the seats, and Democrat wins by very large margins in several seats," he said
In simple mathematical terms, he's right. The huge margins that Philadelphia U.S. Reps. Bob Brady and Chaka Fattah got against little-known Republican opponents account for a significant part of the Democrat's statewide margin in votes cast. But it's hard to look at bizarrely-drawn 6th and 7th districts in the Philadelphia suburbs and think something isn't funny.
McCarty, the national expert said Pileggi has a point. Remember he said that those states that don't let legislatures do re-districting tend to get more proportional results. He said something else about them: "They all have Republican biases."
By that he didn't mean that those states rig the process to help Republicans. He was saying that Republicans generally tend to win more than their proportional share of seats even in those states, because of the tendency of Democrats to have dense clusters in urban areas. And that probably helps to account for the overall Republican majority in Congress.
It also helps to remember that incumbency preservation is a big factor in re-districting, and some Democratic Representatives in Pennsylvania were all-to-happy to accept new lines that dumped a bunch of Democratic voters into their districts. Makes for safe re-election season.
Will anything change?
Despite demographic patters that favor Republicans, McCarty said it's clear there is partisan gerrymandering in states where re-districting is done by legislatures dominated by a single party. Democrats did it in Maryland, and Republicans did in Pennsylvania.
I twice asked Pileggi whether he and other Pennsylvania leaders drew boundaries to maximize the GOP's chances. He wouldn't answer directly, but didn't exactly deny it either.
"Even the Supreme Court of the United States has recognized that re-districting is a political process," he told me, "and I don't think this year's re-districting was any exception to past years in American history."
Leach says this year's results show it's time to change the way Pennsylvania draws its congressional boundaries.
But that will be up to the same Republican-controlled legislature that drew the current maps. So far, there's no interest in change