Primary election is ‘the’ election due to gerrymandered districts, critics complain

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Pennsylvania’s primary election day is in one week, April 26.

In most places, the primary is where Democrats and Republicans each choose their candidates who will then square off in the November general election.

What a quaint concept!

In Pennsylvania, in most instances, the primary is “the” election. In many districts across the commonwealth, the minority party won’t even field a candidate for the fall.

Pennsylvania's congressional districts
Pennsylvania’s congressional districts

Critics blame it on Gerrymandered districts that were, ahem, creatively created.

Congressman Lou Barletta’s seat runs from almost New York to almost Maryland, splitting Carlisle in Cumberland County.

Congressman Pat Meehan’s runs from the Delaware River in Philadelphia nearly to the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County.

Walt Disney might like the artistry involved.

“We call it the Donald kicking Goofy District,” joked Barry Kauffman of Common Cause Pennsylvania, which has advocated for years for an independent commission to draw political boundaries.

In the abstract, the district does look like a few Disney characters kicking each other. Critics call the process Mickey Mouse.

“The way we redistrict now pretty much guarantees that one party will control the outcome of the general election before the first vote is cast,” Kauffman said.

In the last election, more voters pulled levers for Democrats, but Republicans pull the levers on the process, so 13 of the 18 districts are GOP red.

Kauffman said that if Democrats were in control, using the same data, they could’ve reversed the map and made 13 Democrat seats and five Republican.

“That’s why we’ve got to fix this problem, so that we don’t have politicians picking the voters,” Kauffman said. “We need to have voters picking the politicians.”

That is also a quaint concept in the commonwealth. And it’s not just a problem in the congressional districts, which are drawn and voted upon by the state Legislature. It’s also an issue in state House districts, which are basically created behind closed doors and approved, or not, by the Supreme Court.

Kauffman calls it a conflict of interest that elected officials have a hand in drawing up the districts they’ll represent.

“It is absolutely ridiculous,” said Rick Rovegno, a former Cumberland County commissioner who has joined the chorus calling for redistricting reform.

Rovegno lives in the Carlisle area and showed us an absurd situation in the parking lot of Lowe’s.

He pointed to a row of houses on one side. Residents have Representative Will Tallman, who lives in Adams County, and Senator Pat Vance, who lives in Cumberland. Directly across the street, Rovegno pointed to another row of homes. Those residents have Representative Steve Bloom from Cumberland County, but Senator John Eichelberger, who lives in Blair County.

“They don’t live here,” Rovegno said with emphasis. “They don’t live anywhere near here. The state senator, again, lives in Hollidaysburg.”

Throw in a congressman from Hazelton, Barletta, and Rovegno insists the district’s interests are not being fully represented by the folks who are supposed to be representing Carlisle in DC and Harrisburg.

Rovegno concedes there are always going to be lines when political boundaries are drawn.

“But should they be running right through the center of core communities? Should they be breaking apart communities that have socioeconomic, religious, cultural, and school ties?”

There are other consequences, analysts say. Since the primary is “the” election, there’s likelihood that candidates on the far right and far left win among the more partisan primary voters.

And then they fail in DC and Harrisburg.

“They can’t talk to one another,” Kauffman said. “They can’t negotiate, they cannot come together to make public policy in the interest of the people because they’ve catered to the far wings of the party.”

Many say you’ll never completely remove politics from the process, but states like Iowa, with it’s sanely drawn little squares, prove Pennsylvania can do a whole lot better.

“I could take any high school student, give them 30 minutes, and they could have a better redistricting map than the reapportionment panel and Legislature designed with a year of time,” Rovegno said.

Rovegno suggests an independent commission could draw up three different maps and then let the Legislature choose the best one without being able to make changes.

Kauffman says non-political bureaucrats with computers could do the job, too. Common Cause Pennsylvania has been advocating for change for years and Kauffman is optimistic it could happen soon.

Why?

He calls it “enlightened self-interest.” There is a heavily Republican Legislature and a heavily Democratic Supreme Court, which has a role in the process. It might behoove the GOP to pass a law changing the boundary-drawing system, Kauffman theorizes, or risk having a map favorable to Democrats.

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