When Swarthmore College students cast their ballots on Election Day, only some knew that the Pennsylvania congressional district in which they voted had changed.
In 2011, a five-member Pennsylvania state legislative redistricting commission redrew the lines of both state and federal congressional districts on the basis of the decennial 2010 census. Many liberals charge the commission of partisan gerrymandering.
Under the redistricting plan, Swarthmore moved from the seventh to the first congressional district. The change puts Swarthmore in the same district as Philadelphia and Chester, leaving bite-sized holes in the suburban seventh district.
This and numerous other shifts in the map of the seventh district made it into an abstract shape that contains more Republican voters than previously.
In the original seventh district, 52.8 percent of voters were Democrats and 47.2 percent Republicans, according to Azavea, a geospatial analysis firm. In the modified district, Republicans voters are in the majority at 51.8 percent, while Democrats slip to 48.2 percent.
That district’s Republican Congressman, Patrick Meehan, kept his seat in the face of a challenge by Democrat George Badey. In the first district (the one now containing Swarthmore) incumbent Bob Brady handily defeated his Republican opponent, John Featherman, receiving 85 percent of the vote.
David Landau, the Chair of the Delaware County Democratic Party, said he believes that the changes in the district’s geographic boundaries played a role in the election results. “The redistricting was designed to protect Patrick Meehan, and it was successful. Without redistricting … you don’t know what dynamic would have developed, what kind of [Democratic] momentum would have developed. People would have perceived the race as closer, which would have led to more money, which would have led to more visibility,” Landau said.
“This [congressional] map is indication that the Republicans statewide are not … sure about the prospects for the future” John McLarnon, a history professor at Millersville University, told The Gazette by phone. McLarnon wrote about Delaware County politics in his book, Ruling Suburbia.
He said that Republicans had dominated the political landscape in Delaware County and that “up until very recent times gerrymandering didn’t affect the political landscape in Delaware County.” The recent change, he suggested, might show that Republicans feel they need to resort to new tactics to preserve their power in the County.
McLarnon called the redrawing of the maps in Delaware County and elsewhere in the state “patently absurd.”
McLarnon also criticized the composition of the redistricting commission, which was made up of the majority and minority leaders in the Republican-controlled state house and senate and the supreme-court appointed Stephen Mcewen.
In particular, he questioned Mcewen’s neutrality. “When I heard [about Mcewen’s selection] I just laughed” McLarnon said. “They say he is a prestigious gentleman when in fact he is a product of the Republican Upper Darby machine. Everyone knows where his loyalties lie.”
Dominic Pileggi, the Republican senate majority leader who served on the redistricting commission, views the redistricting process differently. His spokesman said in an email that “The plan approved by the LRC was approved with a bipartisan 4-1 vote. One of the LRC members did not support the plan, but of course that doesn’t make it partisan … the plan [is] very fair from a partisan perspective.”
“Legislators have districts redrawn to protect their own seats, or the party in power can collude to protect their party’s majority,” Swarthmore political science professor Carol Nackenoff said. “The party in power at the time of the decennial census is the one who gets to draw the district … [They have] a time-honored interest to try to maximize their own vote-getting capacity,” she said.
All politics aside, few on either side of the aisle would claim that the districts make intuitive geographical sense.
The seventh district, of which Swarthmore is no longer a part, is an agglomeration of pieces of several different municipalities, including parts of five counties. The district’s tortuous shape is only a few hundred feet wide in places. Many other Pennsylvania districts look similarly misshapen.
The redrawing of the seventh congressional district has made it the eighth-least-compact in the nation, according to an Azavea geospatial analysis.
Larry DeMarco, who lost the 2012 race for State House in Delaware County, said, “Republicans are so brazen, are power-hungry and greedy…. [Redistricting] is an example of bad government. It shows they’re governing for themselves and not the people.”
“I think [gerrymandering should be] illegal regardless of which party you’re working for … it’s another example of politicians messing with you and it’s not appropriate,” said Allegra Pocinki ‘14, co-president of Swarthmore’s College Democrats.
When asked what could be done about gerrymandering, Landau, the chair of Delaware County Democrats, suggested setting up “a truly independent commission” to create redistricting proposals. The political feasibility and political effectiveness of such an initiative remains unclear.
Corrections: The previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Larry DeMarco ran for State Senate. It also misquoted Allegra Pocinki as saying “I think [redistricting should be] illegal…”
Featured image courtesy of Azavea.com