Democracy Dies in Darkness

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‘A democracy that's anything but democratic’: A gerrymandering Q&A with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf

January 26, 2018 at 10:36 AM

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a news conference at the Fresh Grocer in Philadelphia, Jan. 17. (Matt Rourke/AP/)

On Monday, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the state’s Republican-drawn congressional district maps, Gov. Tom Wolf (D-Pa.) achieved a sort of lifelong dream. Thirty-six years earlier, he published a dissertation on “conflict and organizational accommodation in the House of Representatives” from the end of the 19th century to the first decades of the 20th. “Gerrymandering is only effective in a stable or static political environment,” Wolf wrote at the time.

In an interview, his first since the court win, Wolf said he’d been outraged by gerrymandering “as soon as I found out what it meant, that politicians were choosing their voters.” Democratic judges (Pennsylvania is one of the few states where judges run in partisan elections) struck down a 2011 map designed to split the state’s 18 districts into five deep-blue ghettos (in and around Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and the Lehigh Valley) and 13 Republican-leaning seats. The court gave lawmakers until Feb. 15 to submit new maps; Wolf pledged to reject anything with a similar partisan bent.

Republicans are not going along meekly with the ruling. At a debate this week, the three leading candidates for the party’s gubernatorial nomination defended the existing map.

“It was a bipartisan vote,” said Mike Turzai, the speaker of the House in Harrisburg.

“Democrats and Republicans came together and voted the current system into place,” said businessman and state Sen. Scott Wagner.

“It’s constitutional,” said businessman Paul Mango. “You know what that means? Elections have consequences.”

On Thursday evening, the party asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and add Pennsylvania to the list of states — Maryland, North Carolina and Wisconsin — where partisan gerrymanders are under review.

Wolf doesn’t expect that to fly. “The Wisconsin case is based on federal issues; this was about our state constitution,” he said. “I️ believe we should be focused on getting a fair map in place.”

In the meantime, he wanted and expected gerrymandering to become an issue in the 2018 elections — in his own, and in any state not among the few that let judges or commissions draw nonpartisan maps.

This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.

The Post: What was the argument for keeping the maps as they were?

Gov. Tom Wolf: The most specious argument I heard was that some Democrats voted for this, and that somehow made it legitimate. There was a time when there were more competitive districts in our institutions, and the House more closely reflected voter sentiments. Gerrymandering goes back to the 18th century, but it’s really reached a crescendo as people shamelessly tried to vote themselves into safe seats. We’ve ended up with a democracy that is anything but democratic, because it’s undermined by the maps.

WP: The last good-government issue that really became a popular cause was term limits. Why hasn’t gerrymandering attracted the same kind of attention?

TW: Well, first off, I think this has taken over from term limits. I think it’s taken longer to gestate as an issue, but if you look at Pew, every year they try to gauge the level of trust in federal government. In the 1950s, people trusted the government to do the right thing. That’s been fading ever since, and people are getting more and more cynical for good reasons. In 2003, Tom DeLay and that group [of Texas Republicans] said, let’s take cynicism to extreme, let’s explicitly gerrymander this state for our advantage — and it worked.

So, I think my cynicism, some of that voter cynicism has been well placed. Now I think we’re at the end of our toleration for this. People are saying, enough, enough — I’ve had enough of this kind of stuff: “If they’re going to keep doing this stuff, I’m going to vote to blow things up.” That’s the reaction.

WP: What would be your ideal mapmaking process? An independent commission? A panel of retired judges?

TW: I think an independent commission is good idea. But some good work is also being done on objective mathematic algorithms, saying here’s what we agree should go into fair maps. If you have fair-minded individuals working on the math, they can take those criteria and produce something neutral. There’s a great mathematician at Tufts working on this; some other researchers are working at that.

WP: Is there a risk for Democrats here? If the party wins control of states ahead of the next redistricting cycle, would it be giving away an advantage, the chance to draw favorable maps?

TW: It’d be far worse for Democrats if our democracy was overthrown and delegitimized. It’s not a partisan issue. Here’s an example: I’m a Phillies fan. If I go to a game, I don’t want my Phillies to get five strikes and the other guys to get three. I want them to win a fair contest. We have a bipartisan stake in health of our democracy.

WP: Have you talked to Eric Holder, who runs the National Democratic Redistricting Campaign, about this?

TW: Before the decision, I might have spoken to Holder once, to say I’m a supporter of fair maps, and he said we’re on same page.

WP: Have you been talking to other governors about what happened in Pennsylvania?

TW: No, I haven’t, but to anybody who mentions the issue to me, I say I’ve studied this — by the way, the American Political Science Association said that [mine] was the best dissertation of that year. I’d point out that this lawsuit was brought by the League of Women Voters, not by Democrats.

WP: Does the Voting Rights Act need to be amended to bring this about? How do you handle the issue of majority-minority districts?

TW: You’ve got to be careful, but it’s not about the kind of map; it’s about outcomes. If you imagined a state tilted slightly toward Democrats, with 18 seats in the House, and only five held by Democrats — I’m talking about Pennsylvania, obviously — that doesn’t pass the smell test. Even if you didn’t have districts that look like Goofy kicking Donald Duck, I’m not sure how that works.

WP: But isn’t a lot of the slant against Democrats coming from geographic sorting? There are more and more Democratic votes in the suburbs and cities; there are less in rural areas.

TW: If people were sorting themselves out, you wouldn’t have to make maps that look like Goofy kicking Donald Duck.

WP: The constitution’s pretty clear on the district system, but what do you think of the idea — totally hypothetically — of electing the House by proportional representation?

WOLF: I understand the issue, and geographic representation is, in some ways, becoming more and more outdated. But I grew up in a small town, I live in that town, and geography matters to me. I’m not sure we, as human beings, have advanced so much that we’re thinking past geography.

WP: Are you going to launch any kind of national campaign to promote this in other states?

TW: I’m happy to make it an issue — but I want to be clear, I’m not the one making it an issue. It’s made by the voters. It’s an embarrassment. Your newspaper says the 7th District is one of the most gerrymandered in the United States. I’m very happy to be a standard-bearer in our democracy. I want to make it clear that the people of Pennsylvania are the ones leading this charge.


David Weigel is a national political correspondent covering Congress and grass-roots political movements. He is the author of "The Show That Never Ends," a history of progressive rock music.

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