Reapportioning Election Districts: An Exercise in Political Self-Preservation

By Gormley, Ken | USA TODAY, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Reapportioning Election Districts: An Exercise in Political Self-Preservation


Gormley, Ken, USA TODAY


Why should someone wait until 1997 to write a story about the Pennsylvania reapportionment - the shuffling around of state House and Senate districts every 10 years - when that exercise in political gyrations took place back in 1991? Reapportionment is like a bad nightmare on a stormy night; it comes in gusts, hovers around much longer than anyone can bear, and recurs in haunting flashes for years and years. It is the once-in-a-decade ritual required by the U.S. Constitution and most state constitutions to straighten out the disparities that occur in voting districts as population migrates over time.

As executive director of the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission, my job began in June, 1991 (after the Federal census) and didn't end until late 1994. In between, there were nearly six months of battles in the state capital, Harrisburg, as political players muscled for position, 26 challenges in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, three major Federal lawsuits, and various attempted ambushes along the way.

Most attorneys know about the landmark cases of Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims, and vaguely recall that they involve the principle of "one person, one vote." What Baker and Reynolds really accomplished was to allow the Supreme Court to thrust its equal-protection-sniffing nose into state reapportionment maps (previously off-limits under the "political questions" doctrine) and strike down plans that strayed too far from the ideal that each citizen's vote should count roughly the same in the voting booth.

The shape of electoral districts influences the shape of power. Legislators worry about the configuration of their districts because they want to be re-elected. Political parties worry about the shape of districts because they want to gain control over the House and/or Senate. Aspiring candidates worry about the shape of districts because they want to pull off a miracle and unseat the incumbent. Individual citizens worry about reapportionment because they want a new fire truck, a better school district, or (sometimes) just for the civic hell of it.

Every exercise of political power, of necessity, includes its dirty secrets. The President has his; the courts have theirs, and the legislatures have more than their proportionate share. As my final official task, I was charged with writing a book summarizing the work of the Commission for the benefit of future generations of legislators and citizens. It was completed at the end of 1994.

When I wrote that book, I didn't (and couldn't) tell the whole story. Many of the most interesting accounts went untold because I was writing for the Commission as aD institution. The following more personal account describes some of the behind-the-scenes events of the Pennsylvania reapportionment that caused me to marvel, wonder, and bristle. It is my hope that the reapportionment battles that certainly will envelop the nation in 2001 will benefit from a healthy dose of frank discussion and demystification.

Does incumbency matter? One of the most common questions asked by those curious enough to wonder what goes on in the trenches of reapportionment is: Does incumbency (i.e., the preservation of existing legislators' jobs) play a role? Of course it does!

Preservation of jobs is the most powerful driving force behind reapportionment, even more so than political rivalries or personal hatreds. The fact is, Democrats and Republicans rally round the common goal of preserving each others, political necks first. Only then, after most members, jobs are safe and secure, will the knives be sharpened for occasional raids on the opposing political party or attacks on hated personalities.

Incumbency is more important than what voters want. It is more important than what the Constitution says. It even trumps the natural urge to beat up the other political party. Incumbency means a paycheck, a wood-paneled office with a loud chiming clock suitable for a medieval baron, and a pension. …

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