By: Nick Santangelo

If you polled Temple University’s 40,000+ students about what a democracy is, you’d likely get some pretty diverse answers. The overwhelming majority, however, would agree it’s a system of government in which citizens choose their leaders. That’s how the Framers envisioned it when they met right here in Philadelphia in 1787 to write the U.S. Constitution. Thanks to partisan gerrymandering, however, that’s things don’t always work out that way. Some of our elected leaders are choosing their voters instead of the other way around, with Pennsylvania being, by some measures, the country’s third-most-gerrymandered state.

A panel discussion in Gladfelter Hall attended by a few hundred students Monday featured a trio of Temple professors and Azavea Senior GIS Analyst and Cicero Data Manager Dan McGlone discussing the dangers of gerrymandering. Specifically, they talked about the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s recent decision to change the state’s congressional map. The ruling was the Court’s response to a January lawsuit filed by a Pennsylvania Democratic organization, the League of Women Voters. The court’s 139-page opinion stated that the districts were “clearly, plainly and palpably” in violation of the state Constitution in that they “aimed at achieving unfair partisan gain” by undermining voters’ rights to free and “equal” elections.

In other words, said McGlone, “the map had been gerrymandered in favor of Republicans.”

The old map was created in 2011 when state Republicans had enough political control to draw it in their favor. It resulted in the state today being represented by 12 Republicans and six Democrats. That breakdown was 13 and five prior to Representative Conor Lamb (D) winning a special election earlier this month. McGlone explained that by every credible measure, the state should never have more than seven to 10 Republican congressmen when a “fair” map is in place.

Geography and Urban Studies Assistant Professor Lee Hachadoorian insisted, however, that this isn’t about red versus blue. “I would stress that you think of this as a non-partisan issue and as a way to engender democracy rather than to see that one side comes out ahead,” he said.

To that end, McGlone pointed out that Democrats have historically gerrymandered “just as much” as Republicans. In fact, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear arguments this summer concerning the Democrats’ alleged gerrymandering of Maryland. And yet, it’s generally accepted that the Republican Party took gerrymandering to a new low with how far it went under the 2011 redistricting. The Party dubbed these efforts REDMAP, a project McGlone said was designed to “draw maps that were essentially voter-proof.”

GOP control of many state legislatures, which are responsible for drawing most states’ maps, was part of what enabled the gerrymandering. It was geospatial technology breakthroughs, however, that allowed the party to enact what many believe is the country’s worst-ever partisan gerrymandering.

Dr. Hachadoorian is a proponent of geospatial technology—when it’s used in good faith. That’s not what the Republican Party has done with it. Instead, they’ve “cracked” Democratic-leaning voter populations apart in some districts and “packed” them into certain districts elsewhere. The professor believes this has “objectively” worsened an existing problem and led to congressional delegations that are more extreme than they should be.

“Geospatial technology is great. I work with it, but like any tool, it can be abused,” explained Dr. Hachadoorian. “And it’s been abused by those people who want to use the information to develop a very gerrymandered set of districts.”

Gerrymandering along partisan lines isn’t the only way to draw unfair maps, either. The 1965 Voting Rights Act makes it illegal for states to draw maps suppressing voters according to their race. In North Carolina, however, the GOP-controlled state legislature relied partly on racial data to redraw its congressional map in 2011. And because so many black voters are Democrats, this seemingly infringed on African Americans’ right to participate in fair and equal elections.

Geography and Urban Studies Professor David Organ recalled that Republicans claimed in the resulting lawsuit that they had not, in fact, racially gerrymandered the maps—they had politically gerrymandered them. Since no court had ever struck down a congressional map for partisan gerrymandering, North Carolina Republicans had gambled that it was a safer play to admit they drew the lines to favor the Republican Party rather than risk their map being ruled unconstitutional due to racism.

It’s now clear that congressional maps blatantly drawn to favor one party over another are unacceptable in the eyes of the law. What’s not clear, however, is what the best way to draw the maps is. Dr. Hachadoorian explained that California and Arizona now rely on non-partisan commissions to draw their maps, but this is the exception, not the rule.

The panel agreed that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania drawing the map that will be used in May’s primaries is not an ideal solution. It was only necessary because the state government—with a Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled legislature—was unwilling to agree on a map that would satisfy the court. A more just and nationwide solution could be on the horizon.

This summer, the Supreme Court of the United States will also rule on Wisconsin and North Carolina’s gerrymandering in addition to Maryland’s. Dr. Organ said this could prove a “landmark” decision. But no one knows for certain if the justices will definitively rule that partisan gerrymandering is or is not unconstitutional. Even if they do, that still leaves the matter of what methodology states should follow to ensure the maps are fair.

Dr. Organ didn’t offer a final solution, but he believes the entire political system would be better off if the government made it easier to vote. ”It shouldn’t be easier to purchase a gun than it is to register to vote in this country,” he said. The professor would like to see Election Day either made a national holiday or moved to a Sunday and to have the voting system standardized. This would eliminate differences from state to state and even district to district. He’d also like to see a stronger focus on education.

“It might be time to bring back civics into the curriculum of schools—at the junior high and elementary and college levels—but also geography,” he continued. “Because space matters as far as how we live.”

Political Science Associate Professor Michael Hagen doesn’t have all the answers either. But with interest in politics seemingly at an all-time high, he thinks now is a great time to be asking the questions. So a Temple student stood up and asked one. Responding, the professor said that gerrymandering has resulted in no one being able to keep track of what’s happening with this year’s midterm elections. “It’s a zoo!” he exclaimed.

Dr. Hachadoorian closed the panel by voicing his support for the type of redistricting systems California and Arizona have. “The best solution is the state, through its legislature or through a non-partisan commission, figuring out how to draw those lines.”

This summer, the country could learn whether or not the Supreme Court agrees with that assessment.

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