Local expert selected for governor’s advisory committee on new Congressional districts – The Mercury
UPPER PROVIDENCE – John Kennedy knows a thing or two about the gerrymander of congressional districts, including where the word “gerrymander” came from.
A professor of political science at West Chester University, the Upper Providence Township resident was called as an expert witness in the 2018 League of Women Voters trial which rejected the districts created by the Harrisburg Republicans in 2011 – including the infamous 7th District known nationwide as “Goofy Kicks Donald Duck.”
His testimony on the districts created in 2011 concluded that “this is a gerrymandered card designed to disadvantage Democratic voters.”
In that case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed that the 2011 redistribution that followed the 2010 census was “an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander under the state constitution.”
The court created new, more compact and contiguous districts, credited with Democratic victories in the 2018 election for U.S. Reps Madeleine Dean, D-4th Dist., Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th Dist., And Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th. Dist. . – all in regions where the registration of Democratic voters had grown considerably over the decade.
Now Kennedy will play a role in the redesign of the Congressional District following the 2020 census.
Unlike 2011, when Pennsylvania had a Republican governor who approved maps developed by the Republican majority, maps created now will be approved, or opposed, by Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat.
Kennedy is one of six people selected by Wolf for the new Pennsylvania Redistribution Advisory Council, which “will provide advice to the Governor to assist him in his review of the Congressional Redistribution Plan to be adopted by the General Assembly. later this year, “according to a Sept. 13 press release from the governor’s office.
His particular specialty is ensuring that the new maps “as far as possible do not divide communities of interest”.
Kennedy used his native Lehigh Valley to exemplify a “community of interest.” For example, if you had a map going from Allentown to Hersey, but excluding Bethlehem and Easton, that would split a community of interest. People say they live in Lehigh Valley. It’s not Allentown Transit Authority, it’s the Lehigh Valley Transit Authority. It’s not Allentown Airport, it’s Lehigh Valley Airport. It’s not the Allentown Iron Pigs (baseball team), it’s the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs.
Communities of interest also include counties and municipalities, and congressional district maps should avoid dividing them where possible, said Kennedy, who received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Kutztown University and his doctorate. of Temple University.
Two main tactics are used in gerrymandering: “cracking” – diluting the voting power of opposing party supporters in many districts – and “packing” – concentrating the opposing party’s voting power in one district to reduce its power. voting in other districts.
Gerrymandering is nothing new.
In fact, as the name suggests, it dates from the early 1800s. It is a combination of a governor who approved a contested district and the animal the district looked like.
Elbridge Gerry who, who died as Vice President of the United States, was Governor of Massachusetts in 1812 and he signed a bill creating a partisan district in the Boston area which was likened to the shape of a salamander.
The fact that the census showed that Pennsylvania has lost population over the past decade raises the political issues of this redistribution cycle. As a result, its delegation to the US House of Representatives will be reduced by one, to a total of 17 seats.
But while the political stakes are higher, so too is public awareness not only of the importance of redistribution, but also of how it can be manipulated for political ends.
Kennedy gives credits to groups like Fair Districts PA and Draw the Lines PA who campaigned for a citizen panel to be in charge of all redistributions in Pennsylvania, both state and federal. . Although the constitutional amendment required to make this change failed in Harrisburg, this work has made many more people aware of what is to come in the next round, he said.
These organizations have shown that computer models make it easy to draw maps that hold communities together and make sense so voters choose their representatives, not the other way around – through a redistribution process that uses twisted maps to render. a safe district for an outgoing, or to get a member of the other party out of their district, Kennedy said.
“Ten years ago, few people knew about the process and there were no public hearings,” Kennedy said. “But what has happened since then has made it clear that this is a significant problem.”
Gerrymandering for a partisan advantage has also helped harden political opinion, both in Pennsylvania and the rest of the country, Kennedy said. “There is very little elasticity in the electorate right now,” he said. “It’s less about convincing voters of your point of view; it is now a matter of maximizing the votes on your side.
As a result, “there are a lot of battles over burning issues, red meat to stir the base and get them to the polls, and less talk of the real issues facing the country and less benefit in making decisions. compromise, ”Kennedy said.
Fairer constituencies, he said, would force politicians to try to win over unengaged voters and facilitate compromises across the aisle without fearing a hyper-partisan primary fight as punishment for ” work with the other side “.
The panel that Kennedy will sit on will aim to do all of this.
The other members of the advisory board are Tabatha Abu El-Haj, Ph.DJD, professor of law at Drexel University; Lee Ann Banaszak, PhD., Political scientist at Penn State University; Beth Campbell Ph.D., mathematician at Gettysburg College; Christopher S. Fowler, PhD., Geographer at Penn State University and Sozi Tulante, JD, former City of Philadelphia lawyer.
“We’ve had one meeting so far and more to come,” Kennedy said Tuesday.
According to Wolf’s office, the council will engage the public, redistribution experts and other stakeholders to make holistic recommendations and emphasize integrity and fairness when defining the boundaries of the map of the Pennsylvania Congress.
In order to provide direct opportunities for the public to be heard and have their voice heard, the Wolf administration has opened a new redistribution website where members of the public can submit proposed district plans, describe communities of interest which they believe should be given consideration in the Redistribution process and submit comments for consideration by the Governor and the Redistribution Advisory Board.
“As this critically important process begins in Pennsylvania, we want to hear from you,” Wolf said in the press release. “Your vote and your voice count. So please take the time to share your thoughts with us.
“The process will be much better, I think, with more citizen engagement,” Kennedy said.
But the panel Kennedy sits on has nothing to do with the redistribution that will occur for the seats in the state Senate and House of Representatives, Kennedy said.
This process is governed by a law which creates a panel of five members to draw the new lines of the district. Majority leaders in the House and Senate each appoint one member, and minority leaders in the House and Senate also appoint one member each. This year, they named themselves.
The fifth member, who has the deciding vote assuming every Democratic and Republican vote together, was appointed in May by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after, for the fifth of six rounds of redistribution, legislative leaders were unable to agree on a fifth member. of the commission.
Mark Nordenberg, former chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh and former dean of the law school, was chosen as the fifth member of the jury.
The other members are House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, Republican of Center County; House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, Democrat of Philadelphia; Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, Republican of Westmoreland County, and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, Democrat of Allegheny County.
By law, this panel is redrawing the lines for all 253 districts in the Pennsylvania General Assembly this year and the governor has no role.