Op/Ed: Gerrymandering cheats voters

By Mike Hays, Special to The Times

Mike Hays

One of the most abhorrent and undemocratic things about gerrymandering is how it stifles competition. As a new teacher in Pennsylvania, I have been thinking about how I might explain gerrymandering to my 8th grade class.

Full disclosure: I am not an innocent bystander, having run for the PA House 26th District in 2012 as an underfunded, yet determined, 32-year-old Spring City councilman.

Pre-teens and teenagers understand the rules of sports quite well. Gerrymandering is essentially allowing politicians to decide who gets to play the game. District boundaries exclude and include a roster of potential candidates and voters based on how the lines are drawn. Pennsylvania has 203 House districts and 50 in the state Senate.

Let’s step back to 2012 — the year Pres. Obama was re-elected. We were both on the ballot two years after the previous Census (2010). As you probably know, lines for state legislatures and Congress are redrawn every 10 years following the population update that is the Census. In 2012, Spring City Borough and the City of Coatesville were both part of the 26th District. Both of those municipalities’ voters tend to support the Blue Team (Democrats) — much more in Coatesville’s case, where I won over 75 percent of the vote in each precinct.

Now, if you wanted to tilt the playing field even more toward the Red Team (Republicans) and build a “safe seat,” you would redraw the lines to exclude Coatesville and Spring City. That is exactly what happened. Today, Coatesville resides in the 74th District, while Spring City is in the 155th District. Both seats are held currently by Democrats, with the 155th being more of a “swing district.” The 74th was crammed or “packed” with Democratic leaning voters, thus diminishing that party’s chances of picking up other seats in Chester County over the long-term. At least that was the conventional wisdom before the “Blue Wave” of 2018.

Keep in mind that the incumbent, Rep. Tim Hennessey has held the seat since Bill Clinton was first elected President in 1992. The closest someone came to knocking him off was 2008, when he held back a challenge by Fern Kauffman by 4 points. Since then, his average margin of victory was about 10 points.

As I reflect on my experience and the fate of future candidates, I am actually house sitting for Pam Hacker, of East Vincent, who was the only other Democrat to challenge Hennessey since 2010. (*No Democrat ran in 2014 or 2016). I eat breakfast each morning at the same table where she likely strategized with her husband, Steve, over how she could possibly overcome the built-in advantage of a “safe district” and stage an upset. How could she possibly overcome the GOP’s “house sitting” of the 26th?

As stated before, over time, gerrymandering leads to less competition and less choice for voters as potential candidates conclude: Why should I bother? There is almost no chance.

What would a fairer process look like? Independent commissions, used by a handful of states, can serve as the referee. They are not perfect all the time, but independent commissions are better than the free-for-all that we have in Pennsylvania. Our democracy is too important to allow either party to cheat voters out of a fair contest to determine who represents them in the halls of power.

Mike Hays is a former reporter for The Mercury and the 2012 Democratic nominee for the 26th PA House seat. He teaches English Language Arts in Berks County.

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