More than 200 students attended the “Justice at the Polls: Undoing Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania” panel hosted by the College of Liberal Arts in Gladfelter Hall on Monday.
The panel consisted of Lee Hachadoorian and David Organ, professors of geography and urban studies, Michael Hagen, a political science professor and Daniel McGlone, a senior geographic information systems analyst and Cicero data manager.
McGlone and Hachadoorian explained the history of gerrymandering in Pennsylvania and how elected officials gerrymander districts, while Hagen and Organ discussed the political implications of the gerrymandering process like the lack of enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 resulting in racial gerrymandering.
In January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the old Republican-drawn congressional map was an unconstitutional gerrymander with “strange, sprawling” district lines, giving Republicans an unfair advantage in elections.
State Republicans attempted to block the new Pennsylvania Supreme Court-drawn map by challenging it in the U.S. Supreme Court. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the party’s challenge, and the new map will stand for the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.
Officials gerrymandering Pennsylvania were making the state less compact by ignoring county boundaries.
According to traditional redistricting criteria, officials should make districts compact and minimize the amount of existing splits in political jurisdictions like counties, municipalities, wards and cities, McGlone said.
In the old Republican-drawn map, there were 68 municipal splits and 29 county splits, which is “very bad,” McGlone added. The new map only has 19 municipality splits and 13 county splits.
“No matter how much Democrats come out to vote, they still aren’t able to elect people into office and take control of Congress because the maps are so biased in favor of Republicans,” McGlone said.
It will be difficult to come to an agreement about redistricting in the near future, Hagen said.
“What we’re seeing here is not a very good assessment of what the best redistricting plan would be,” Hagen said. “We still are quite aways away from coming to a consensus about what that might mean.”
Every 10 years, congressional districts are redrawn after the U.S. Census. In 2010, Republicans were in control of many state legislatures across the country, so Republicans were in charge when each state’s new maps were drawn.
The Republicans lead a campaign known as the “Red Map” or Redistricting Majority Project, which tried to get Republicans elected in state legislatures to redraw the congressional district lines.
In 2011, all of the Republican state legislatures had access to sophisticated data from legal and map teams in Washington. This allowed Republicans to draw maps that were “voter proof,” and would keep Republicans in power for the next decade, McGlone said.
“The gerrymandering has gotten so bad in Pennsylvania that the Supreme Courts had to step in,” McGlone said. “Geospatial technology is great, I work with it, but like any tool, it can be abused.”
Geospatial technologies are modern tools that are involved in geographic mapping and analysis like global positioning systems and internet mapping technologies. These are utilized by town planners, environmentalists, national security and officials that gerrymander districts, Hachadoorian said.
McGlone said the process the drawing of congressional district maps is very important, and needs to be reformed.
The map drawing process should be opened up to the community to have meetings across the state to propose their own maps and debate them, so that citizens feel like they are being fairly represented in their congressional districts, McGlone said.
“We can have a process where someone in a room with closed doors and having secret meetings, with a secret process, we can end up with a fair map maybe, sometimes,” he added. “But generally we end up with really terrible maps.”
Hagen said there needs to be political checks on these maps because it is a political process.
“In the end, there are going to be decisions made that need to have input from ordinary people involved, and political institutions should be involved in the process of these maps,” Hagen said.