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posted on 22 January 2018

The Pennsylvania Gerrymander

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Editor's note: This is a republication of an Opinion article posted days after the 2012 national election. The article is again timely in view of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision today that threw out the congressional district map for that state as unconcnstitutional.


The Gerrymander Triumph

The US Elections - an Outsider's View

Written by Paul Hanly (12 November 2012)

gerrymander-racial-TexasSMALLAs an Australian I am interested in what happens in the US for a number of reasons. When the US economy sneezes, the world gets a cold, where US troops go, Australia is sure to follow. Our culture is largely influenced by 3 things, our legal and institutional heritage from Britain, our TV shows from the US and our immigration from a range of countries and cultures.

So how did I see the US election?

There are four things that stick out like a sore thumb to a distant observer.

  1. Gerrymandering of the House. The US house elections have very undemocratic election results in many states, largely in favour of Republicans. In Ohio 52% of the total vote cast gained Republicans 80% of the seats. In Pennsylvania 49% of the vote gave Republicans 72% of the seats. See the table below, data from The Huffington Post.
  2. Disenfranchisement. The US seems to allow disenfranchisement of more classes of people on more grounds than Australia. With the biggest proportion of its population in gaol of any country in the world, the US allows disenfranchisement as an additional punishment for many people who have already served their time.
  3. Optional voting. In Australia we have lots of personal, political and economic freedom, but with it comes an obligation to vote in elections. You can vote informal, but if you don't turn up and have your name crossed off as having voted you are highly likely to receive a fine.
  4. Separation of the Executive. You have a republican system of government with an (almost) directly elected President who is a powerful part of the political process, Australia has the Queen of England as its head of state, represented in Australia by a Governor-General who is almost never involved in the political process, the exception being the 1975 sacking of the then Labor Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. While some of our states have only one house of parliament, we, like the US, have a bicameral system of federal parliament with regular partial (half senate) elections being the normal process for the Senate which has longer terms than the house.


Why does the question of gerrymandering come up? Look at the congressional district map of Pennsylvania:

Click on map for larger image.pennsylvania-congressional-map

Focus on the south eastern part of the state. The eleven congressional districts for that region are listed in the following table. The three Philadelphia districts (1, 2, 13) are colored green in the table - three strongly Democratic districts. The three surrounding districts (6, 7, 8) are shaded with the same colors used for them on the map. Especially for 6 and 7, the shapes are classic gerrymander layouts. Do they look like a firewall constructed to keep the 733,000 to 164,000 Democratic majority in the city from "contaminating" the three surrounding districts which are divided 587,000 to 430,000 in favour of the Republicans?


The six districts could be redrawn (and maybe with less irregular shapes?) to result in six Democratic congressional districts with an average vote in 2012 of 194,000 D to 125,000 R. As the map is drawn the election resulted in a 3-3 split.

For the entire eleven districts for south eastern Pennsylvania, the average vote per district was 161,439 D and 137,854 R. The representation in congress is 4 D and 7 R.

Why haven't the Dems insisted on more representation? The latest districts were drawn in 2011 by a state government under the complete control of the Republican party. The Democrats had nothing to say about it.

This is not to say that Democrats would not engage in the same action if given the opportunity. There have been accusations of similar actions directed at Democrats in Illinois where the party picked up four congressional seats in 2012.

Like many foreigners were reported to be, I was more enthusiastic about Obama than Romney.

This reflects my utilitarian leanings (social democrat) but also my disdain for politicians who won't set out a clear policy agenda with a clear statement of where additional revenue will come from and where increases and decreases in expenditure will be focussed. Romney's resort to unspecified savings is, in my view, code for "they will hurt a clear majority".

Now that the elections are over, maybe a mere slowing of the impact of the fiscal cliff by implementing the measures over 2 or 3 years would be the easiest agreement to reach given that the parameters of changes to revenue and expenditure are already agreed, (although I tend to being a Modern Monetary Realist and believe that a sovereign issuer of currency can almost always avoid insolvency and is not revenue constrained).

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