Dr. Robin Lauermann, Professor of Politics and International Relations & Chair of History, Politics, and International Relations, pens this series.

(What is Civic Mind?  Read our welcome post for the series!)

At the end of January, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf vetoed a plan proposed for the redrawing of congressional district boundaries (redistricting), setting up for the state courts to rule.  Although the plan was generated by an expert in redistricting issues, some observers were concerned that it favored the Republican party, which currently holds the majority in the state legislature.  Pennsylvania also experienced challenges to the map draw after the 2010 census.  Despite changes in its process resulting from that experience, the events show that the pursuit of political equality – in the form of “one person, one vote” – is challenging to achieve. Within the federal government, the U.S. House of Representatives was intended as the most connected to the people, and also based on state population.

As a result, the founders set up a process to allow the composition of the House to reflect population shifts over time.  Unless you live in Rhode Island, Wyoming or another state with a small population that only receives the minimum of one member in the House, your state government is currently navigating the process of redistricting.  Following the constitutionally required census that occurs every ten years, the number of seats for the US House of Representatives is adjusted (reapportioned) across the states.  Save for states that have enough people to merit the one seat minimum, states that have grown may gain seats and those that have shrunk may lose seats.   As a result, those states that experience change must figure out how to divide their territory among the number of required seats.[1] For much of our history, this process has drawn significant scrutiny; it should, as it impacts one of the most central elements of democracy, how voters interests are translated by elections for Congress to represent them.

Legislation does exist to guide some elements of the process, at the federal level and in a majority of states.   Most notably, the maps must have equal populations – as close as possible – across the districts within a state; this expectation promotes the value of each voice in the political process, a hallmark of democracy.   Also important to democratic systems, protections for minority populations seek to curb their exclusion by the majority.  Spatially, many states require not only that smaller political boundaries within states be protected, but also that the units not be widely spread (compact) or disconnected (contiguous).  Despite the debate over the new maps drawn each decade, the current legislative guidelines allow those with political power to use the process to reinforce their advantages.

Attempts to gain political advantage through redistricting stretch back to the early years of United States history.  Known as gerrymandering after Elbridge Gerry, who is associated with one of the early politically suspect maps, the concern raises questions about how votes count.  Individuals negatively impacted by the process have had difficulty seeking remedies.  Despite the successful challenges to racial gerrymandering beginning with the Shaw v Reno (1995), it remains difficult to address because of overlap of some historically marginalized groups with specific political parties. Opponents of partisan gerrymandering have had more difficulty because, in all but eight states, the legislatures draw the boundaries, which means that those parties with a majority have the votes to promote the passage of the plan that advantages their members.  Few states have any provisions to promote political competition – whether it be between parties or against incumbents more specifically.  Furthermore, since first raised in the 1960s, the federal courts have been very reluctant to enter the fray, affirming the “political” nature of this issue in Rucho v Common Cause (2019).  The result is that this influence shapes the extent to which voters can achieve representation, especially if the aggregate results do not reflect the distribution of voters in the nation. Several reform ideas have emerged in response.

Among the most straightforward options that have emerged, several states have set up independent commissions that take the process out of the hands of elected officials.  Currently, only nine states have such a body, though a few more have state level ones for similar processes to set boundaries for the state legislative districts.  Decisions by these bodies are not, unlike those made by legislatures, influenced by which party has the majority at the time the maps are approved.  The result is a much more competitive and authentically representative electoral process.

Other efforts advocate for more extensive reform that can better reflect social groups in ways that would either lessen the impact of district boundaries or remove them altogether.  Ranked choice voting, discussed in this prior Civic Mind post, encourages the participation of smaller party candidates without voters needing to be concerned that they waste a vote if their most preferred candidate does not win.  A conversion to multimember districts, whether at the state level or in segments of the states, would allow multiple parties to win based on their proportional support in the electorate.  In each case, the goal is to promote political competition, accountability and representation.

Although these options appear attractive in theory and example, implementing them is far from simple. For ranked choice voting, though keeping the geographic boundaries for a variety of positions, including legislative ones, requires significant effort to get the intended results.  First, advocates must ensure that voter education is a critical element of the process to ensure they use their ballot accurately.  In addition, perhaps more importantly, efforts need to focus not only on getting voters to the polls, but encouraging them to complete all the potential rank entries, otherwise, their vote becomes moot as soon as the candidates chosen are eliminated.  Multi-member districts, which use a proportional ranked choice voting, also require empowering voters to understand and use the process correctly to achieve the intended outcomes.  Multi-member districts exist in several states, but have not been applied at the national level.

Regardless of the strengths and weaknesses of each approach – commission, district type and ballot type – citizens should be encouraged.  The vast majority of statutes governing elections are set at the state level, where citizens have much greater influence in the process.  As such, they may learn about the processes that exist their states and others for federal and state elections via the National Conference of State Legislatures, communicate with their members and participate in communication campaigns with organizations advocating reform.  In addition, we have a much greater opportunity to make informed decisions because we can use data from existing structures to promote changes that are more likely to work, rather than guessing what might or might not happen.

Currently the Pennsylvania redistricting process sits with its state supreme court.  On February 9th the court suspended the window for candidates to gather signatures to get on the ballot, as it is scheduled to hear arguments on the challenge to the map beginning February 18th.  This development is not new territory for the state.  In 2018, the state supreme court overturned the prior map, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to step into the issue, leaving the state court decision to stand.  Pennsylvania might be wise to extent the use of commission for the state legislative districts to the congressional ones.  Ultimately, concerns about voter ability to gain voice through representation in the electoral process could, if not addressed, destabilize the system if individuals lose confidence in it and seek other means to promote change.




[1] This process is necessary because Congress capped the number of representatives at 435 in the 1929 Permanent Reapportionment Act.  Minor fluctuations occurred initially when Alaska and Hawaii became states, but the number reset after the subsequent census.


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