Pennsylvania is a “purple” state with a roughly even mix of blue Democratic voters and red Republicans. Yet for the past eight years, Republicans have sent 13 members to the U.S. House of Representatives while the Democrats have sent only five.
This stark imbalance isn’t a coincidence. It’s the result of “gerrymandering,” the practice in which one political party creates irregularly shaped voting districts in order to increase their chances of winning elections. Pennsylvania’s seventh district, which the New York Times said resembled a moose head, was a prime example of how precisely partisan gerrymandering has become.
But Pennsylvania’s era of “moose-and-antler” voting districts is over, for now, after the state’s Supreme Court ruled in January that the congressional map unfairly favored Republicans. On March 19, the U.S. Supreme Court refused a request by Pennsylvania Republicans to block the new voting districts (New York Times). The nation’s top court is hearing two other cases on gerrymandering in Maryland and Wisconsin (Brookings).
The Pennsylvania court implemented its new map on February 5, with more neutral district lines, giving Democrats a far better chance this fall to win U.S. House seats that previously were all but predetermined for the GOP.
With more competitive elections ahead, however, Pennsylvania voters should expect an uptick in at least one unintended consequence of more balanced voting districts: increased political spending.
Competition is expensive
Because there’s little incentive to dump advertising money into lopsided races, heavily gerrymandered districts are largely insulated from the massive sums of campaign contributions and subsequent ad spending that have come to define U.S. politics.
“It’s much more difficult for candidates in uphill or hopeless races to secure funding and the kind of committed support necessary to win elections,” said Brian Remingler of Princeton Election Consortium, a university group that studies gerrymandered districts.
The correlation between competitiveness and campaign spending was evident in 2016. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, nine out of the ten most expensive House races that year were designated as “toss-ups” or narrow victories by the New York Times.
And while the number of small individual donations have increased, according to Pew Research, House candidates historically struggle to win in competitive races, or even stay financially afloat, without the help of wealthy backers.
House candidates relying on small donations in 2014 needed to raise $1,800 a day for an entire two-year term in order to survive in a competitive race, according to a study from Demos, a left-leaning think tank.
In reality, competitive congressional races in the 2014 midterms were overwhelmingly funded by donations of $200 or more, which Demos considers to be made by “large donors.” Only two candidates out of 50 were able to compete while raising less than 70 percent of their contributions from large donors (DEMOS).
This doesn’t factor in “outside spending” from Super PACs, entities that can contribute unlimited sums of money to campaign-related advertisements, which also tend to gravitate toward competitive races (Campaign Finance Institute).
Expensive elections are controversial
Whether large campaign contributions actually influence candidates’ behavior is debatable. But according to an Associated Press poll, 80 percent of Americans believe donations directly influence politicians.
Public perception of a quid pro quo relationship between campaign financier and politician can be found in Pennsylvania. Widely characterized as a “friend of oil and gas companies” that “bankrolled his campaign” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), former Governor Tom Corbett (2011-2015) maintained that Pennsylvania should not institute a natural gas extraction tax, and repealed a policy regulating natural gas drilling (including hydraulic fracturing) in park land, deeming it “unnecessary and redundant.”
“In a remarkable coincidence, 2010 gubernatorial candidate Corbett received a whopping $835,720 from oil-and-natural gas interests,” wrote Philadelphia’s The Inquirer in a typically negative reaction to a governor said to have “fracked (Pennsylvania’s) middle class.”
Money in politics has generated “voter disillusionment” according to a 2016 Brookings Institute report, with “voters increasingly feeling like their voices are not heard because they cannot make large political contributions.”
According to the aforementioned Demos study, a “constant focus on fundraising can overshadow discussion of substantive issues in a campaign.”
Gerrymandering makes elections cheaper
Gerrymandering doesn’t eliminate competitive races, but it does greatly minimize their number (Five Thirty Eight).
GOP strategist Karl Rove pointed out the “huge financial implications” of partisan redistricting in a 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed. Instead of bankrolling House elections, in swing states like Pennsylvania, Rove saw the benefit in making congressional seats predictable, as well as Republican.
“Moving, say, 20 districts from competitive to out-of-reach could save a party $100 million or more over the course of a decade,” wrote Rove, months before the 2010 midterms.
The initiative Rove was referring to was known as the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP), a program funded by the Republican Senate Leadership Committee.
David Daley, co-founder of Fair Vote and a fierce critic of partisan redistricting, says Republican strategists convinced their donors that winning these state legislature seats could avoid funding “very expensive battles every two years.” Daley is also the author of Ratf***ed: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count, a book on the science of gerrymandering.
Unlike parliamentary democracies, such as the UK, voting districts in the United States are established by elected officials in state legislatures. California and Arizona are two exceptions – these states have independent commissions in place to avoid partisan gerrymandering. Otherwise, whichever party controls a state legislature has the power to redistrict once the U.S. Census is conducted every ten years.
After the last census was conducted in 2010, Republican donors through REDMAP invested over $30 million state legislative seats in swing states, including Pennsylvania (REDMAP). While $30 million dollars is insignificant by federal standards, campaign dollars have more value in “down-ballot races,” where name recognition of candidates is lower (Guardian).
The investment paid off, just as Rove predicted. Republicans won 107 key state legislative seats in 16 states, giving them unilateral control to re-draw districts that elected 193 of the 435 U.S. House seats (Quartz).
“You think about that for a moment. It’s pretty amazing that a handful of these local races would have that kind of national power,” Daley told WikiTribune.
Gerrymandering influences courts, negative ads
Contributions heavily fund political advertisements, many negative in tone. Daley points to David Levandsky, former state representative from Pennsylvania’s 39th district, as a symbol of local politicians caught in partisan crosshairs during census years.
An ad campaign, funded by the Republican Senate Leadership Committee, falsely linked Rep. Levandsky, a 25-year Democratic incumbent, to a $600,000 library dedicated to controversial former U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (WHYY). Levandsky lost his seat to his Republican opponent.
“It’s not a good thing for democracy to have all of that money and negative campaigning seep all the way into our local races,” Daley said.
The fight over the power to gerrymander isn’t limited to state legislatures, but includes state judiciaries. In Pennsylvania, many state judges are elected officials. After Republicans secured the state House, Democrats countered by campaigning for the state’s supreme court, which overturned the gerrymandered map this year. When three state supreme court seats were vacant in 2015, Democrats invested in Democratic candidates.
Over $21 million was spent on Pennsylvania’s state supreme court races in 2015, a record-breaking amount for elections of that kind in U.S. history (TIME). Democrats won all three open supreme court seats, which come with ten-year terms, and hold a 5-2 majority on the bench. In 2018, the court ruled in a 5-2 decision to re-draw the electoral map.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Suzanna Almeida, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania. “We think [the Supreme Court decision] is based on the law and the facts, but we also want our judges to be appointed through a process that focuses on qualifications rather than their qualities as a campaigner.”
Gerrymandering not over
Pennsylvania’s new and more neutral congressional map will likely stand for the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Republican lawsuit that opposes the current court-drawn version (Slate).
But partisan redistricting is only temporarily suspended in Pennsylvania. The state legislature will again have the ability to carve district lines for partisan gain in 2020, the next census year.
Organizations such as the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania are pushing for legislation that strips the state legislature of redistricting power before the expected flood of national dollars arrive for 2020 campaigns. Almeida sees independent commissions, similar to California’s model, as the “gold standard” in the national fight over gerrymandering.
Two bills in the state government propose independent redistricting commissions. But in a congress notorious for gerrymandering, neither bill has received a floor vote. Almeida told WikiTribune that “connecting the dots” between redistricting and national political issues can bring reform to fruition.
“When folks are worried about taxes, guns in school, or being paid a living wage, connecting those issues to the redistricting can be complicated … but I think people are starting to understand why it’s important.”