Redistricting Ain't What it Used to Be

Salena Zito
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Posted: Dec 26, 2010 12:01 AM
Redistricting Ain't What it Used to Be

When Pennsylvania lawmakers begin the complicated task of redrawing congressional district lines to reflect changes in population, the process may be just a little less dramatic than usual.

“It’s the first time since the 1930 U.S. Census that Pennsylvania will only lose only one seat,” said Jeff Brauer, a U.S. history professor at Keystone College. “Typically we lose two or more House seats.”

Since 1930, Pennsylvania's share of congressional seats has dropped from 36 to 19.

The Republicans’ take-over last month in Harrisburg – voters elected one as governor along with GOP majorities in the state Senate and House – means they will control the redistricting process.

Every step of the process will be controlled by Republicans, a direct consequence of the midterm elections, said Bert Rockman, a Purdue University political science professor.

“Losing seats is much more dramatic than gaining seats since that almost guarantees, sans a retirement, that incumbents will be forced to run against each other and large groups of constituents will have new representatives,” said Brauer.

Two Democrats who may be in trouble are U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire of McCandless and freshman U.S. Rep. Mark Critz of Johnstown, who succeeded the late John Murtha.

Both men represent swing districts with large pools of registered Democrats who tend to be more conservative. Republican John McCain won both districts during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Altmire insists he is not going to worry about that. “Right now we have far greater concerns, like job creation and reducing the deficit, than worrying about what will happen basically a year from now,” he said.

Critz, a former aide to Murtha who won a full term in November, said he plans to run again in 2012, even if he must face Altmire.

Critz is candid enough to admit that, with a few days more of politicking by his opponent, he likely would have lost his seat. “I was lucky,” he said.

In 2002, the Republican-controlled state legislature developed a redistricting plan that pitted Murtha against Democrat Rep. Frank Mascara of Washington County in a newly drawn 12th Congressional District. Murtha won.

Altmire isn’t ready to speculate about running against a fellow Democrat: “It is way too early to talk about that.”

Elections have consequences. Partisan gerrymandering is perfectly legal and constitutional, and it is a consequence of electoral victories. Even though Pennsylvania Democrats have a 1.2 million-voter registration advantage over Republicans, the state’s Republicans will reshape the map to their advantage because they won the election.

Since Republicans succeeded in making an impressive shift in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, winning 12 seats to the Democrats’ seven, look for redistricting that protects that advantage.

“That will most likely mean splintering Democratic areas by merging them into heavily Republican districts,” explained Brauer.

For example, in the state’s Northeast, look for Republicans to take the heavily Democratic city of Scranton out of the Democrat-leaning 11th Congressional District and adding it to the neighboring, Republican-leaning 10th district, according to Brauer.

This could help to ensure the re-election of two freshmen Republican congressmen in the 11th and 10th districts – Lou Barletta and Tom Marino, respectively.

Political gerrymandering – the redrawing of district lines by a political party for its advantage – has become easier to do with the use of high-tech computer modeling of potential voter behavior.

It gives the boundary-drawers the ability to determine which parts of a state are more likely to vote Republican and which parts are more likely to vote Democrat, which is essential to successful gerrymandering.

“However, even with this technology, another factor has thrown a major wrench into gerrymandering – the rise of the independent voter,” explains Brauer.

With more and more voters identifying themselves as independent rather than either Republican or Democrat and, more important, switching their party preference from one election to the next, gerrymandering for the long-term has become very difficult, if not impossible in some cases.

So the effects of gerrymandering now may be felt only for an election or two, and not for the full ten years until the next census.

That certainly was one factor in explaining what occurred with the shifts in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation over the past decade.