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Local expert picked for governor’s advisory panel on new Congressional districts

John Kennedy

UPPER PROVIDENCE — John Kennedy knows a thing or two about gerrymandering Congressional districts, including where the word “gerrymander” comes from.

A political science professor at West Chester University, the Upper Providence Township resident was called as an expert witness in the 2018 League of Women Voters lawsuit that threw out the districts created by Harrisburg Republicans in 2011 — including the infamously contorted 7th District known nationwide as “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck.”

His testimony about the districts created in 2011 concluded that, “this is a gerrymandered map designed to put Democratic voters at a disadvantage.”

In that case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed that the 2011 redistricting that followed the 2010 Census was “an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander under the state Constitution.”

The court created new, more compact and contiguous districts, credited with Democratic wins in the 2018 election for U.S. Reps. Madeleine Dean, D-4th Dist., Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th Dist., and Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th Dist. — all in areas where Democratic voter registration had grown significantly over the decade.

Now Kennedy will play a role in the redrawing of the Congressional district that follows the 2020 Census.

Unlike in 2011, when Pennsylvania had a Republican governor who approved the maps drawn up in by the Republican majority, the maps created now will be approved, or vetoed, by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat.

Kennedy is one of six people selected by Wolf for the newly created Pennsylvania Redistricting Advisory Council, which “will provide guidance to the governor to assist his review of the congressional redistricting plan which will be passed by the General Assembly later this year,” according to a Sept. 13 press release from the governor’s office.

His particular specialty is making sure that the new maps “as much as possible, don’t split up communities of interest.”

Kennedy used his native Lehigh Valley to illustrate a “community of interest. So for example, if you had a map that went from Allentown to Hersey, but excluded Bethlehem and Easton, that would be splitting up a community of interest. People say they live in the Lehigh Valley. It’s not Allentown Transit Authority, it’s the Lehigh Valley Transit Authority. It’s not the Allentown Airport, it’s the Lehigh Valley Airport. It’s not the Allentown Iron Pigs (baseball team) it’s the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs.”

Communities of interest also include counties and municipalities and Congressional district maps should avoid splitting them up whenever possible, said Kennedy, who received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Kutztown University and his Ph.D. from Temple University.

Two principal tactics are used in gerrymandering are “cracking” — diluting the voting power of the opposing party’s supporters across many districts —  and “packing” — concentrating the opposing party’s voting power in one district to reduce their voting power in other districts.

Reading Eagle: Susan Keen

The original cartoon showing Elbridge Gerry’s “salamander” by Elkanah Tisdale was published in the Salem Gazette, on Friday, April 2, 1813, on page 1.Cornell University: Persuasive Cartography: The PJ Mode Collection, Public Domain,

Gerrymandering is nothing new.

In fact, as its name suggests, it dates back to the early 1800s. It is a combination of a governor who approved a disputed district and the animal the district resembled.

Elbridge Gerry who, died as Vice President of the U.S. was governor of Massachusetts in 1812 and he signed a bill that created a partisan district in the Boston area that was compared to the shape of a salamander.

Raising the political stakes in this re-districting cycle is the fact that the Census showed Pennsylvania lost population in the last decade. As a result, its delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives will be reduced by one, to a total of 17 seats.

But while the political stakes are higher, so too is public awareness not only of the importance of redistricting but also of how it can be manipulated to serve political ends.

Kennedy credits groups like Fair Districts PA and Draw the Lines PA which campaigned for a citizen’s panel to be in charge of all re-districting in Pennsylvania, both at the state and federal level. While the Constitutional amendment required to make that change failed in Harrisburg, that work has made many more people aware of what’s coming in the next round, he said.

Those organizations have shown that computer models make it easy to draw maps that keep communities together and make sense so that voters choose their representatives and not the other way around — through a re-districting process that uses twisted maps to make a district safe for an incumbent, or to draw a member of the other party out of their district, said Kennedy.

“Ten years ago, few people were aware of the process and there were no public hearings,” Kennedy said. “But what happened since then has highlighted this as an important issue.”

Gerrymandering for partisan advantage has also contributed to the hardening of political views, both in Pennsylvania and in the rest of the country, said Kennedy. “There’s very little elasticity in the electorate right now,” he said. “It’s less a question of convincing voters of your point of view; it’s now all about maximizing votes on your side.”

As a result, “there are a lot of battles over hot-button issues, red meat to stir up the base and get them to the polls, and less discussion of real issues facing the country and less benefit to compromising,” said Kennedy.

Fairer districts, he said, would force politicians to try to win over uncommitted voters and make it easier to compromise across the aisle without the fear of a hyper-partisan primary fight as punishment for “working with the other side.”

The panel on which Kennedy will serve will aim to do all that.

The other members of the advisory council are Tabatha Abu El-Haj, Ph.D. J.D., professor of law at Drexel University; Lee Ann Banaszak, PhD., political scientist at Penn State University; Beth Campbell Ph.D., mathematician at Gettysburg College; Christopher S. Fowler, PhD., geographer at Penn State University and Sozi Tulante, J.D., former Philadelphia City Solicitor.

“We’ve had one meeting so far with more coming up,” Kennedy said Tuesday.

According to Wolf’s office, the council will engage the public, redistricting experts, and other stakeholders to make holistic recommendations and emphasize integrity and fairness when drawing boundaries for Pennsylvania’s congressional map.

In order to provide direct opportunities for the public to weigh-in and have their voices heard, the Wolf Administration has opened a new redistricting website at which members of the public can submit proposed district maps, outline communities of interest they believe should be given special consideration in the redistricting process and submit comments to be considered by the governor and Redistricting Advisory Council.

“As this critically important process kicks off in Pennsylvania, we want to hear from you,” Wolf said in the press release. “Your vote and your voice matter. So please, take some time to share your thoughts with us.”

“The process will be much better, I think, with more citizen engagement,” said Kennedy.

But the panel on which Kennedy is serving has nothing to do with the re-districting that will happen for state Senate and state House of Representative seats, said Kennedy.

That process is governed by a law that creates a five-member panel to draw the new district lines. The majority leaders in both the House and Senate each appoint one member and the minority leaders in both House and Senate also appoint one member each. This year, they appointed themselves.

The fifth member, who has the tie-breaking vote presuming each Democrat and Republican vote together, was appointed in May by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after, for the fifth out of six re-districting cycles, legislative leaders could not agree on a fifth member of the commission.

Mark Nordenberg, the former chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh and former dean of the law school there, has been chosen as the panel’s fifth member.

The other members are House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, Republican of Centre County; House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, Democrat of Philadelphia; Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, Republican of Westmoreland County, and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, Democrat of Allegheny County.

By law, this panel re-draws the lines for state all 253 Pennsylvania General Assembly districts this year and the governor has no role.


Source: Berkshire mont

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