Redistricting Ain’t What it Used to Be
When Pennsylvania lawmakers begin the complicated task of redrawing congressional district lines to reflect changes in population, the process may be just a little less dramatic than usual.
"It’s the first time since the 1930 U.S. Census that Pennsylvania will only lose
only one seat," said Jeff Brauer, a U.S. history professor at Keystone College.
"Typically we lose two or more House seats."
Since 1930, Pennsylvania’s share of congressional seats has dropped from 36 to 19. Last month, voters elected a Republican governor along with GOP majorities in the state Senate and House.
Every step of the redistricting process will be controlled by Republicans, a direct consequence of the midterm elections, said Bert Rockman, a Purdue University political science professor.
"Losing seats is much more dramatic than gaining seats since that almost guarantees, sans a retirement, that incumbents will be forced to run against each other and large groups of constituents will have new representatives," said Brauer.
Two Democrats who may be in trouble are U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire of McCandless and freshman U.S. Rep. Mark Critz of Johnstown, who succeeded the late John Murtha.
Both men represent swing districts with large pools of registered Democrats who tend to be more conservative. Republican presidential candidate John McCain won both districts in 2008.
Altmire insists he is not going to worry about redistricting. "Right now, we have far greater concerns, like job creation and reducing the deficit, than worrying about what will happen basically a year from now," he said.
Critz, a former Murtha aide, won a full term in November but is candid enough to
admit that, with a few days more of politicking by his opponent, he likely would
have lost his seat: "I was lucky."
He said he plans to run again in 2012, even if he must face Altmire.
In 2002, the Republican-controlled state Legislature’s redistricting plan pitted
Murtha against Democrat Rep. Frank Mascara of Washington County in a newly drawn
12th Congressional District. Murtha won.
Altmire isn’t ready to speculate about running against a fellow Democrat: "It is way too early to talk about that."
Elections have consequences, including partisan gerrymandering, which is perfectly legal and constitutional. Though Pennsylvania Democrats have a 1.2 million-voter registration edge, Republicans will reshape the map to their advantage because they won the election.
Because Republicans won 12 congressional seats to the Democrats’ seven, look for
redistricting that protects that advantage.
"That will most likely mean splintering Democratic areas by merging them into
heavily Republican districts," explained Brauer.
For example, in the state’s northeast, look for Republicans to take heavily Democrat Scranton out of the Democrat-leaning 11th Congressional District and add it to the neighboring, Republican-leaning 10th, according to Brauer.
This could help ensure the re-election of freshmen Republican congressmen in the
11th and 10th districts — Lou Barletta and Tom Marino, respectively.
Political gerrymandering — a party redrawing district lines for its advantage —
has become easier with high-tech computer modeling of potential voter behavior.
It gives the boundary-drawers the ability to determine which parts of a state are more likely to vote Republican or Democrat, which is essential to successful
"However, even with this technology, another factor has thrown a major wrench into gerrymandering — the rise of the independent voter," explained Brauer.
With more voters identifying themselves as independent rather than Republican or
Democrat and, more importantly, switching their party affiliation from one election to the next, gerrymandering for the long term has become very difficult, if not impossible in some cases.
So gerrymandering’s effects now may be felt only for an election or two, not for the full 10 years until the next census.
That certainly was one factor in the shifts in Pennsylvania’s congressional
delegation over the past decade.