Today’s vote reflects gerrymandered politics

May 19, 2014

Driving down Route 19 the other day into McMurray, there was a sight about as surprising as a bear rambling across the road.

A campaign sign for U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy.

Why should that be such an eye-opener? After all, for the last couple of weeks, campaign signs have been cropping up amid the spring dandelions in anticipation of today’s primary election. Murphy will be on the Republican ballot throughout the 18th Congressional District, which stretches from his Upper St. Clair home base into Washington and Greene counties, but he will have no opponent within his own party. And, unless a Democratic candidate gins up a write-in campaign, he will be unopposed come November.

Certainly some of this can be credited to Murphy’s political dexterity, and some is a simple surrender to reality – two years ago, Murphy handily dispatched a GOP opponent in the primary who was running to his right, and in the fall he faced Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi, who ended up grabbing not many more votes than any of the hapless Democratic sacrificial lambs Murphy carved up in the elections before that. The thinking must be that if Maggi, a popular figure within Washington County, can’t make Murphy break a sweat, then no one short of the ghost of John Murtha will.

Murphy is hardly atypical. As a column on this page today by Pennsylvania political sages Terry Madonna and Michael Young points out, most of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation is running without opposition in today’s primary, and may well be facing token opposition in November. The same scenario is playing out in every other part of the country. For all our frequently stated desire to “throw the bums out” – or, at least, someone else’s bum – the same bums keep getting their tickets punched again and again, their standing usually ratified in resounding landslides.

Our politics is awash in money, and incumbents carry name recognition and clout, so, for some lawmakers, winning a congressional or state House seat is all but a lifetime appointment. But some of the blame for this state of affairs must be pinned on our carefully gerrymandered legislative districts, particularly on the congressional level, which rigs the game by putting many – but not too many – voters inclined to support one party or another into one district.

Sam Wang, an associate professor at Princeton, explained it well in The New York Times in 2013: “Gerrymandering is not hard. The core technique is to jam voters likely to favor your opponents into a few throwaway districts where the other side will win lopsided victories, a strategy known as ‘packing.’ Arrange other boundaries to win close victories, ‘cracking’ opposition groups into many districts.”

Gerrymandering has resulted in some districts with peculiar configurations and odd boundaries. The former state Rep. Bill DeWeese once colorfully compared one state house district to “a supine sea serpent with genitalia pointing toward Wheeling (W.Va.),” while one congressional district in the Philadelphia region has been likened to “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.”

A story in Sunday’s Observer-Reporter outlined how the 9th Congressional District, which now includes portions of Washington and Greene counties, stretches from Waynesburg to Waynesboro, a distance of 180 miles. To travel from one to the other would take more time than driving from downtown Washington to Cleveland’s lakefront.

There have been calls over the years for redistricting to be taken out of partisan hands and placed in the hands of nonpartisan commissions. That would be fair. But it would require politicians to surrender some power and lose some of the spoils that come with it.

In other words, don’t get your hopes up.



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