Critics describe Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District as looking like “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.”
They say that the district, which encompasses parts of Delaware, Chester, Montgomery, Berks and Lancaster counties, is one of the country’s most politically gerrymandered, designed by Republicans in Harrisburg as part of a statewide map meant to dilute Democratic votes. But the district might not remain that way for much longer, as a result of a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision ruling the state’s congressional map unconstitutional.
The court gave the Pennsylvania General Assembly until Feb. 9 to submit a new districting plan to the governor. If Gov. Tom Wolf accepts that plan, it must be submitted to the court by Feb. 15.
The new plan, according to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, must consist of districts “composed of compact and contiguous territory; as nearly equal in population as practicable; and which do not divide any county, city, incorporated town, borough, township, or ward, except where necessary to ensure equality of population.”
If the General Assembly fails to submit a new congressional districting plan by Feb. 9, the court is to adopt its own plan, according to the order.
The collective influence of some Pennsylvania communities has been stifled by the existing map, according to Cliff Levine, who represented Lt. Gov. Mike Stack in the case, and redistricting could “lead to an additional voice of different communities that have a lot of Jewish residents.”
Montgomery County — a suburban county northwest of Philadelphia, some of which is included in the 7th Congressional District — is, Levine said, a “poster child” for the chaotic effects produced by gerrymandering.
“Montgomery County has a significant Jewish population,” Levine noted. “And it tends to vote Democratic. You could fit an entire congressional district in Montgomery County, but it is split into five districts, with no representatives that reside in Montgomery County.”
In general, gerrymandering infringes on people’s rights to vote for candidates, said Kate Doyle, Montgomery County lead for Fair Districts PA, an organization working to create redistricting reform.
Gerrymandering has caused the dilution of Montgomery County’s political voice and has created additional challenges for county commissioners and school districts, as they must work with several representatives, she said.
“We have five different congressional districts [in Montgomery County], even though our population warrants at least one, if not a little bit more, of our own congressional district,” Doyle said. “The population that they use for congressional districts is approximately 800,000, and we have at least that many in our population, so we should have one. Instead, we’ve been cracked into five different districts.”
Montgomery County’s “sizable Jewish population has a meaningful voice to offer Pennsylvania and the country,” Levine said.
On Feb. 5, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to block the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling.
Brett Goldman, a lobbyist with Duane Morris Government Strategies LLC, said this means one of three things will likely happen: Either the map will be completely redrawn, the map will remain the same for the time being or just the 7th District will be redrawn.
No matter the end result of this lawsuit, said Doyle, it will not solve the underlying causes of gerrymandering.
To do that, Pennsylvania needs to adopt a different method of drawing congressional districts.
Ruth Damsker, an elected member of the Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee and former Montgomery County Commissioner, said California provides an example of another nonpartisan way distract maps can be drawn. In California, a nonpartisan commission draws the maps, instead of whichever party leaders happen to be in power at the time of the census.
Senate Bill 22 and House Bill 722 both seek to make this change.
“Every person’s vote is supposed to make a difference, but if you live in a district like I do now that is the majority of one party, then you don’t have fair elections,” said Damsker, who lives in the 7th District.
On the grassroots level, Doyle educates the public on this issue and what can be done about it at community meetings and other events. She encourages the public to reach out to their legislators on this issue. Her goal is to get the process for redrawing districts changed by the 2020 census.
“If we have legislators who aren’t going to listen to the voters, then we’re not going to be able to solve any problem,” Doyle said. “The voice of the constituents in Montgomery County and Pennsylvania aren’t being heard, and whether your cause of choice is whatever it is, if legislators aren’t listening to you, or the legislators we have in D.C. aren’t listening to the people in Pennsylvania, nothing is going to get done.”
But with the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl win taking precedence, Goldman is not sure how much redrawing can be accomplished by the Feb. 9 deadline.
“We live in uncertain times,” Goldman said, “but the Eagles are the Super Bowl champions.”
Additional reporting by Toby Tabachnick