In one sense the history of elections in the USA has recorded a march to an expansion of the electorate. In the 19th century we abolished property qualifications for the right to vote, we eliminated indirect elections to the US Senate, and we granted (male) African Americans the franchise, only to have it virtually eliminated in the post-Civil War southern states for almost a century. The 20th century saw a long struggle to expand the franchise to all African Americans and to women. The presidential electoral “college” was reduced to a rubber stamp of the popular vote in the states. Voting age was reduced to 18 years old.
Nevertheless, two elements of voting have resisted this march toward greater inclusiveness: the shape of the districts in which we cast our ballots for our national and state representatives, and the obstacles we place in the way of physically getting to the polls on election day.
Every decade we conduct our national census. And every 10 years we adjust the election districts to take account of shifts in population. So in the past 20 years states that have gained population have acquired more national representation in the lower House of Congress. (We still live with two senators from every state, no matter what the population, thus granting sparsely populated Western states equal representation in this respect with heavily populated states like California and New York.) Inside the states, the state legislatures re-draw the boundaries of the state election districts for the state legislature.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such boundary drawing is the prerogative of the states—within certain rules to reduce biases against racial minorities. Within the past two decades the Supreme Court has also ruled that state legislatures can, if they want, re-district in between the decennial census, ostensibly to take account of rapid population shifts. Texas has managed to sharply reduce the number of Democrats they send to the US Congress and their own state legislature by such a maneuver. So the party in power at the state level usually tries to cut down the chances of the opposition party in the next election. All this is constitutional, since the matter of elections is a power reserved to the states…by previous Supreme Court rulings, but within the 20th-century understandings of civil rights.
All this brings me to the Pennsylvania State Legislature. In the past few months a joint committee of the legislature has been working out a plan for the new boundaries of the mandated revision of election district boundaries. Since the Republicans control both Houses, nobody expected them to violate their self-interest. So, of course, they came up with a plan designed to make it easier for Republicans to get themselves elected to the national House of Representatives and both branches of the State Legislature.
There are some provisions of past court rulings that require such districts to respect, where possible, local jurisdictions, like townships and natural boundaries, like rivers. But, of course, that is in the eye of the beholder, and in the eyes of the State Supreme Court judges. Judges are elected in Pennsylvania, on party lines, although they can be “retained” after their first contested election.
It takes a lot to overturn an incumbent in a retention election. Many judges are retained without opposition from an opposing party. The Republicans hold a majority of the judges at the state level.
Imagine the surprise of the Republican leaders at the state level when the State Supreme Court turned back the legislature’s plan for the re-districting for the state legislature…although not their plan for the national level. It was a Republican Chief Justice who cast the deciding vote. Although both re-districting plans reflected the expected gerrymandering for party advantage, apparently the plans at the state level were particularly egregious.
In particular, they did not sufficiently respect the integrity of municipalities. This was especially blatant in the case of Narberth and Lower Merion , which would have been divided into four separate legislative districts. As it is, a few of Pennsylvania’s electoral districts put the classic 19th-century “gerrymander” in Massachusetts to shame.
On top of this, at the end of February it was revealed that a self-employed young piano teacher, Amanda Holt of Allentown, on her own, produced an electoral map that that was fairer and split fewer counties, wards and municipalities. It turned out that her map work was partly the basis of Chief Justice Castille’s ruling. A case like this demonstrates clearly that a rational, non-partisan approach to electoral re-districting makes objective sense. Partisan commissions produce partisan results. (It also shows that we do not need expensive “commissions” to re-district. Amanda Holt used maps, demographic data and an Excel spread sheet. She spent about $30.)
It is time to make re-districting non-partisan, not a decennial game to secure political advantage. In other countries, re-districting is the job of a non-partisan, non-political commission composed of academics, civil servants, retired business people and the like, whose recommendations are just about automatically accepted.
Aside from treating electoral districts as central to partisan politics, we Americans seem to be engaged in a nation-wide campaign to make voting harder, not easier. After making it easier to register, with “motor voter” laws, that permitted voters to register along with auto registration, now we seem to reversing that process. Mandating picture I.D.’s for voters, another bill in the Pennsylvania legislature right now, amounts to putting obstacles in the way of older, disabled, and non-driving persons. In addition, it seems a “solution” without a problem, since the number of cases of voter fraud are miniscule, in Pennsylvania, as elsewhere. (In Alabama, they have had four cases of voter fraud in nine years, yet they are engaged in passing a new voter I.D. law.)
Finally, why is not Election Day a holiday, as it is in other countries? Failing that, why do we not vote on Sundays, when most people are not due at work? Why do we make it to so hard for basic, electoral democracy to work?