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What is to be done with congressional districts? Try proportional representation

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After winning an improbable victory in the movie “The Candidate,” U.S. Sen.-Elect Bill McKay, played by Robert Redford, utters the line, “What do we do now?” Proponents of Pennsylvania’s newly redrawn congressional districts may be asking this same question if election results don’t turn out as they expect. And Pennsylvania is just one of a growing number of states where redistricting cases are being filed and pending in both state and federal courts.

There are neutral rules for drawing legislative districts. Districts should be compact and contiguous; have as near equal populations as practicable; preserve counties, municipalities and wards within a single district to the extent possible; and not dilute districts with minority-majority populations. In Pennsylvania, a state Supreme Court order and majority opinion cited several of these criteria as not being met in finding the previous map unconstitutional.

{mosads}That’s not surprising; they were nowhere near being compact and contiguous, and had no respect for county and municipal integrity. Maps offered by groups across the political spectrum, including the court map, come far closer but still miss the mark on maintaining county and municipal boundaries. Trading county and municipal integrity for more equal district populations, the court map still splits 14 counties, 19 municipalities and 32 voting precincts between multiple districts.


Like the Republican lawmakers who drew the previous districts, opponents of the discredited map have their own ideas, beyond neutral criteria, on how a new map should have been drawn.  

While partisan criteria were not mentioned in its order, the Pennsylvania court-imposed map seems to have used them in crafting districts that lean even further towards Democratic candidates than those maps that were submitted by Democratic politicians. According to the Cook Report, it moves four districts closer to the Democratic column than under the previous map, resulting in six and seven districts either sure or likely to go for the Democratic and Republican candidates, respectively, along with five others that lean either way or are toss-ups in the upcoming election.

It doesn’t take long to see that these criteria often are at odds and that each side seeks partisan advantage. The difficulty in drawing districts that convert partisan votes into actual representation without gerrymandering in some form becomes apparent. Then, in true Sisyphean fashion, the whole process, with inevitable recriminations, must be repeated periodically.  Someone always will be disappointed.  

But maybe districts themselves are the problem. Fortunately, an alternative is available: proportional representation. It’s an idea that is beginning to attract the attention of more and more political commentators, grassroots groups and others. Under this system, both major parties (as well as minor ones) might pick slates of 18 nominees in regional geographic primary elections. Instead of voting for one representative in 18 separate districts, a statewide congressional election would be held with each voter casting votes for up to 18 candidates from the various slates. In Pennsylvania, we do this in judicial elections when there are multiple court openings. The number of seats awarded to each party would be determined by the percentage of the vote received by that party, statewide.  

The three elections held under Pennsylvania’s old map each produced a caucus of 13 Republicans and five Democrats. Had the state used proportional representation, the results would have been an equal nine to nine split in 2012, and 10 Republicans and eight Democrats in 2014 and 2106 — four and three more Democratic seats, respectively, than actually were awarded.   

Consider that in 2006 and 2008 the Democrats managed to flip five congressional districts, reversing a seven- to 12-seat deficit to a 12- to seven-seat majority, after having lost a court challenge to an earlier Republican gerrymandered map. Of course, the Democrats then lost five seats in the following election, but that was a midterm election after Barack Obama became president. It shouldn’t escape notice that we are again heading into a midterm election with a president of dubious popularity with his partisan opponents.  

This illustrates that political vicissitudes are subject to time and circumstance. Donald Trump will not always be president, nor will the Democrats always occupy the Pennsylvania governor’s mansion. Republicans hold majorities in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly and Democrats will not always have a five-justice majority on the state Supreme Court. In other words, people happy with their political fortunes today may not be so when the shoe is on the other foot. Proportional representation offers an opportunity to remove politics as much as possible from this particular process while injecting some much-needed clarity and certainty.

Are there problems with this proposal?  Of course; nothing is perfect and, as with drawing districts, there are always trade-offs. But this system is both fairer and more reflective of actual voter intent. It would eliminate, instead of just minimizing, the wasted votes because partisan voters are overwhelmingly concentrated in particular districts. And how better to address the problem of unfair advantage, the basis of the court’s decision to scrap the old map?

The biggest difficulty is political feasibility. Vested interests will cling to status quo, or make cosmetic changes, at best. Anything new is always frightening. But the voters in Pennsylvania deserve an intelligent and workable solution to this problem — one that might become an example for other states facing such challenges. As Bill McKay himself said in the 1972 political comedy-drama film: “There has got to be a better way.”

David Wassel is an attorney and political consultant in McKeesport, Pennsylvania.

Tags Barack Obama Constituencies Democratic Party Donald Trump Electoral geography Electoral systems Gerrymandering Politics Proportional representation Republican Party United States House of Representatives

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