In the United States, debates about where and how to divide political power predate even our Constitution. More recently, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, supported by a pliant media corps and a collapse in civics knowledge among voters, has taken power away from our state Legislature and granted itself the power to redraw Pennsylvania’s federal district maps.
The once-in-a-decade process of redistricting is happening in our backyards. As is clearly delineated in our state constitution, map-drawing power must be placed back into the hands of the people — our hands.
The History of Redistricting in Pennsylvania, 1790—2011
Conflicts over legislative districts predate the United States. Reformers complained about “rotten boroughs” in Great Britain’s Parliament in the 1700s, citing towns that had parliamentary representation despite dwindling populations. The contemporary version of the problem in the United States began with the development of a system that reapportioned congressional seats every decade based on census results.
The Founding Fathers were not blind to the problems of line-drawing. In 1788, supporters of James Madison alleged that Governor Patrick Henry and his allies in the Virginia Legislature drew the state’s districts in a manner that disadvantaged Madison. Madison won anyway — not the last time complaints about district lines turned out to be overblown.
Similar debates were had on Pennsylvania colonial soil. During Pennsylvania’s constitutional phase, English Anglicans from Chester, Bucks, and Philadelphia counties faced off for territory against groups such as German immigrants in northeastern Pennsylvania, Scots-Irish further into Lancaster, York, and western Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia Quakers.
Clearly, factionalism among demographic groups in divvying up power are not new to Pennsylvania.
After the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, delegations representing 16 of Pennsylvania’s 21 counties came together to draft a constitution that amounted to a broad compromise document, including a bicameral legislature, an executive with veto power, popular elections among all free men, and a clause in Article I, Section 5 that “elections shall be free and equal” — a subject of much debate and discussion since.
As the republic matured, the formation of political lines provoked debate. In 1812, Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry signed off on a Democratic-Republican Party redistricting plan (pictured below). Gerry’s political opponents said his map looked like a salamander — more specifically, a “Gerry-mander.” The word has remained in the American political lexicon ever since.
Figure 1: The original “gerry-mander,” Massachusetts, 1812.
Pennsylvania followed a similar course in its redistricting. After the Civil War, district lines tended to benefit the Republican Party of the victorious union. But the advantages ran both ways: Democrat Samuel J. Randall, who served as Speaker of the Democrat-led U.S. House from 1876 to 1881, held a safe Democratic seat (pictured below) because majority-Republican wards in Philadelphia were excluded from it to benefit GOP representatives from the rest of the city — a mild gerrymander compared to our 21st-century versions.
Figure 2: Representative Samuel J. Randall’s safe Democratic seat, in yellow, in Republican-leaning Philadelphia proper.
Democrats more often had the upper hand in Pennsylvania map-drawing between the 1950s and the early 1990s. That changed at the turn of the century, when new computers allowed single parties to draw more advantageous maps. Districts across the nation became more precisely drawn to further their drafters’ intentions while also meeting federal and state requirements. Redistricting had become a political cause in its own right — and Pennsylvania was no exception.
The redistricting plan following the 2000 census, designed by Pennsylvania’s Republican majority, was hotly contested by commonwealth Democrats. The ensuing court challenges culminated in Vieth v. Jubelirer (2004), in which the United States Supreme Court held that claims of political gerrymandering were beyond the court’s power to address because there was no manageable standard for determining whether a political group was harmed. In other words, no line can be drawn between a “good” district and a “bad” one, and no set of rules can allow a court to decide between them on a politically neutral basis.
The crafting of political maps is inherently political, and courts had traditionally tried to avoid it. This fundamental question of deciding whether a district is legitimate has stymied federal legal challenges to redistricting plans ever since.
This article was written based off of Part I of the Broad + Liberty white paper, Redistricting in Pennsylvania: The Past, Present + Future. Download the full report here.
Albert Eisenberg is a co-founder of Broad + Liberty. Kyle Sammin is a senior contributor to The Federalist, co-host of the Conservative Minds podcast, and writer for Broad + Liberty. @albydelphia + @kylesammin.