Sunday, June 15, 2008

Pennsylvania's Rorschach test

It's a little odd to read the news that local congressman Tim Murphy is one of only 14 house Republicans who has not (yet?) endorsed McCain for President. Some may think the goal is to gain some support in the middle from what can be seen as a mixed district. You would think that someone who won relatively handily (58-42) last time around would not be overly concerned with re-election. Makes you wonder. Could be that he is looking into the future a bit. It is is almost guaranteed that PA-18 will not be as friendly to Murphy after the next redistricting.

When Pennsylvania was last redistricted following the 2000 census, there was little secret made in the desire to create a district that would swap one traditionally Democratic congressional district for a Republican one in Southwestern Pennsylvania. With just a little help from those darn computers a congressional district was tailor made for then State Senator Tim Murphy who would win the seat. Jeff Toobin discussed the whole history of Pennsylvania redistricting in this article in the New Yorker. In the end the effort may have backfired and according to no less of a conservative source than the Wall Street Journal the process didn't work out too well for Republicans in the long run. Maybe that explains the lack of endorsement?

But we are about to enter this whole redistricting cycle again. Passing almost unnoticed last week was just about the only chance to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to alter the way redistricting happens. Pennsylvania's League of Women Voters (LWV) was advocating for some fundamental reform in the way the redistricting process takes place in the commonwealth. The goal was to take some of the politics out of the process. Last week was effectively the deadline if there was to be an ammendment to the state constitution in place before redistricting takes place again.

How important is redistricting? Pennsylvania is likely to lose a seat when the nation reapportions congress next. That will force changes in district boundaries across the state and make control of the redistricting process one of the biggest prizes in Harrisburg. Take a look at just how big a difference the power to define district boundaries can be. The LWV has pointed out some of the extreme cases of gerrymandering and PA-18 is at the top of their list. This for example is what the outline of the local 18th Congressional District looks like today.

There are lots of reasons that a political map need not always look neat and compact. Boundaries may reflect sheer topography or some fundamental socioeconomic patterns that do not lend themselves to simple shapes. However for PA 18 you have to wonder what reasons lead to that shape. Consider that prior to the most recent redistricting, PA18 had not only a different shape, but was far more compact and contiguous. It shows there is no fundamental explanation (other than sheer politics) for the shape PA took after the 2000 redistricting. Take a look at what its outline looked like before:

If you put both old and new districts on top of each other, you see just how much PA18 was changed. Granted, Pennsylvania lost a congressional seat in the last reapportionment as well, which forced changes across all of the state's congressional districts, but look at just how little overlap there is between what PA18 was and what it became. What this tells you is just how important the control of the redistricting process is. There is nothing more political than the drawing of political boundaries which can determine not only the party has an advantage, but what specific candidate is likely to do well.

Without reform in the process there is an interesting question as to how the post 2010 redistricting will play out in Pennsylvania. In 2001-2002, the Republicans controlled both house and senate in Pennsylvania and there was a Republican governor. That made control of the process straightforward if nothing else. Right now, the Republican party controls the state senate; the state house has a close Democratic majority, but with a Republican speaker reflecting a pretty even split. A Democratic governor is in office right now, but it will be Rendell's successor who is in office at the time of the next redistricting. So the control of Harrisburg will likely be about as muddled as it can get. Add it all up and it's hard to see how the the redistricting process will proceed smoothly. It's typical that there is some judicial play to the redistricting process, often in the form of lawsuits over the final maps that are drawn up. I would bet there will be involvement of the state supreme court far earlier in the process baring some extraordinary bipartisan cooperation in Harrisburg. Worth mentioning, the state Supreme Court right now is split 3-3 between D's and R's with one vacancy.

Think this is all too far down the road to think about. I have no doubt folks are plotting all this already and it will not be long before big bucks start to go into planning the next redistricting. The upcoming state elections are fundamentally important to who controls Harrisburg in the next few years and thus who will control the Federal redistricting that is coming up.


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