Swarthmore students are by and large among the most civically and socially engaged students in the nation. We organize on and off campus for causes we passionately believe in. It is one of the great strengths of our community, and one of the major reasons I decided to attend the college to begin with. It deeply troubles me to see the leaders in our state government moving to discourage basic civic participation in the Swarthmore community.
The most basic and easiest form of civic participation we have is voting. Before we can engage in any other means of influencing our representatives, we must first decide who our representatives are, and the way we do that is through the ballot box. Any attack on our ability to effectively choose our representatives is at its core a direct assault on our ability to influence our government.
Our ability to effect change through voting has been brutalized since the Republicans gained total control of the statehouse in 2010. Swarthmore has been cast into the political fringes with the thorough gerrymandering of the statehouse and congressional maps. On the state level, a single member in the Pennsylvania State House no longer represents the campus community. Instead we have been divided in two. Students living in ML, PPR and Strath are now represented by Thaddeus Kirkland, a Democrat and the same member who has historically represented the City of Chester. Students living on campus are represented by Swarthmore’s “historical” representative Joseph Hackett, a Republican.
Our voice has been quite effectively diluted by this gerrymander driven split. Neither Hackett nor Kirkland have much of an incentive to pay much attention to the wants and needs of the borough of Swarthmore, or the students in the college. Our voting power, while always relatively small, was at before concentrated and potent. Swarthmore students, after all, provided Bryan Lentz his margin of victory when he was first elected to the state house in 2006. Furthermore, Hackett and Kirkland will feel the pressure of non-voting activism far less than they did prior to the changing of the maps, because on-campus activists will have less power to begin with, and activists will have to split their efforts to pressure two representatives from two districts where Swarthmore is a mere afterthought.
The implications of the split are even more staggering to somebody such as myself who has worked to register students on campus for the past two and a half years. For better or worse, students on campus are not particularly fond of reregistering to vote when they move dorms, even though they are technically required to do so. Now with the split of the campus community, not reregistering brings the frightening prospect that students will be voting for representatives that they have no legal right to. As a result, voter fraud might occur accidentally. The monster that haunts the nightmares of every American Conservative might finally be made real because of a simple shift in the lines on a map. Shocking what a little tinkering here and there can do to make the world we live in more like illusory world voter fraud vigilantes inhibit.
This split in state house districts is the most egregious bit of gerrymandering imposed on Swarthmore by vengeful statehouse Republicans, but it is by no means the only bit of map-making trickery employed in the recently completed redistricting process that occurs once a decade. To see how little Republicans want to deal with Swarthmore and its students, one needs to look no further then the new Congressional districts. They are truly a case of pure unadulterated gerrymandering.
To understand just how horrific the new maps are, let us examine Swarthmore’s old district, the fightin’ 7th. Until this redistricting cycle, the 7th and its historical predecessors were anchored firmly in Delaware County, home of Swarthmore College. Now the 7th is comprised of portions of five different counties, with tentacles reaching out from DelCo into Montgomery, Bucks, Lancaster and Chester Counties. It’s a vomit-like Rorschach inkblot nightmare which rates as the fifth least compact district in the nation. But it’s a nightmarish district that Swarthmore is no longer part of.
Instead of leaving us in our historic district with the rest of Delaware County, state Republicans felt compelled to shore up incumbent Pat Meehan by removing the liberal activist town of Swarthmore (which coincidentally is home to Meehan’s 2010 challenger Bryan Lentz) and place us in the considerably more Democratic 1st district, represented by the boss of the Philadelphia Democratic Party, Bob Brady.
When looking at the maps its remarkable just how far out of their way Republican mapmakers went to pull Swarthmore, and its band of activist students and residents, out of the swingy 7th. It’s not just some coincidence; it was done with clear malicious intent.
Redistricting has always been a politically charged process, fraught with naked partisanship, backroom deal making, and ugly political self-interest. It happens all across then nation. Democrats do it, as they did this cycle in Maryland and Illinois. This year in Pennsylvania, Swarthmore got caught in the crossfire of a political power grab, and as a result our ability to directly affect change through the ballot box will undoubtedly suffer.