There’s a storm brewing in Harrisburg. And if you’re a conservative, it’s perfect.
State Republicans hold more power now (in the state House, Senate and governorship) than they’ve had in decades. And they’re not wasting it. Over the last 10 months, the party’s gone all out against the citizens, legislatively: Attempting to kill women’s rights through bizarre architecture legislation and state-sponsored torture; repressing poor and homeless voter’s rights through Voter ID legislation; potential drug-test rules for people on welfare; and Arizona-style immigration legislation.
Up next: Senate Bill 1282, a shady electoral college plan to give out Pennsylvania’s electoral votes by district instead of population. Add to that the fact that Republicans will be redrawing those very same congressional districts this year, and we’ve got outright gerrymandering on our hands.
The plan, thought up by Sen. Dominic Pileggi of Chester, would change the way Pennsylvania distributes its 20 electoral votes in presidential elections. Currently, Pennsylvania uses the winner-take-all system, meaning that whoever wins the state’s popular vote gets all that state’s electoral votes. Pileggi’s plan would separate electoral votes by congressional district instead of by population, which many say would benefit Republicans, since the state’s Democratic bookends (Philly and Pittsburgh) have tipped the scales toward Democrats in the last five presidential elections.
In local practice, it’d look like this: Philadelphia’s two majority congressional districts (District 1, held by Bob Brady; and District 2, held by Chaka Fattah) are highly Democratic and potentially make up millions of Democratic votes. All the votes in these districts are currently added up with the rest of the state’s popular vote and the winner takes all (Pennsylvania formerly had 21 electoral votes; it’s getting cut down to 20 in 2012, due to a sluggish 3.5 percent state population growth). According to Pileggi’s plan, if the presidential candidate won Philadelphia, he or she would get at least two electoral votes in the next election—whether that candidate wins Philadelphia by a single vote, or, as was the case in 2008, about 400,000.
Therefore, in the next election, even if President Obama wins the statewide popular vote, he could end up with fewer electoral college votes than his Republican challenger. If the law had been in practice in 2008, when Obama won the state by 10 points, he’d only have taken 11 of the then-21 votes. (Both Pennsylvania senators, Bob Casey and Pat Toomey would have a vote, too, and would give them to the candidate who wins the majority of the state.)
Pileggi insists his plan is not a partisan one. But that’s exactly how criticism and praise has broken down.
State Sen. Anthony Williams (D) of Philadelphia has called Pileggi’s electoral college plan “chilling” because it marginalizes the most diverse portion of the state. “We [of Southeastern PA] have people of all persuasions and all faiths,” he said at a recent hearing. “To suggest that we take away their voices is duplicitous.”
But state Rep. Babette Josephs, who represents Pennsylvania’s 182nd District, sees something more sinister at play. She says this bill, along with Voter ID and anti-immigration legislation, is meant to crush Philadelphia’s often-lopsided state representation due to a heavy population and need of resources.
“I think there has been a plan to lessen Philadelphia’s standing in the state,” she says. “We’re the people who bring out the Democratic vote. This is where the Democratic votes are concentrated … and I think the Voter ID requirements and others are aimed in that direction.”
The bill could also hurt Pennsylvania’s standing in national politics, as well. “[Pennsylvania’s spot as a swing state] highlights the state … The economic payoff and civic pride that comes to a state that gets that kind of national attention cannot be replicated by anything,” Josephs says.
Of course, Gov. Corbett responded favorably to Pileggi’s plan (as did the state’s 12 U.S. House Republicans). “There are huge portions of Pennsylvania that voted for the other candidate in many of the elections, and their vote really didn’t count,” he said earlier this fall, when the plan was introduced. And if he really feels that way—‘representative democracy’ be damned—then he’s in the right place at the right time. After all, last year was a census year. Which makes this year a redistricting year. With Republicans controlling Harrisburg, they’re required by law to redraw the state’s congressional map before the electoral college plan comes into play. The majority party always does this to make it as hard as possible for Democrats to take back one-time “swing” seats, an added benefit of doing all this, now.
It’s like this: This year’s new congressional and legislative maps will be drawn by two Democrats and three Republicans, then sent to the House and Senate for a vote. Some potential legislative maps have already been released, but none yet voted upon. At least one of those maps eliminates the 169th District in the Northeast. The seat would potentially be moved to York County, where a more conservative Republican could take the helm.
For the U.S. Congressional maps: Though at first it was assumed the eliminated district would be in a Pittsburgh suburb, several anonymous sources have been leaking to the Harrisburg press that, on second thought, why not combine Reps. Chaka Fattah’s and Allyson Schwartz’s respective Philadelphia and suburban Philadelphia districts? This would, as a news source pointed out in March, create a “battle between suburban whites and Philadelphia blacks” and be “the kind of bloodbath the Republicans would pay to see.”
Eliminating a Democratic House seat isn’t the only consolation prize for Republicans. They can strengthen their own seats, too. Especially suburban “swing” seats, like Pennsylvania’s 8th and 7th Districts, held by freshman Republican Reps. Mike Fitzpatrick and Pat Meehan, respectively. If they redraw both seats to consist of fewer Philly suburbs and more red state rural areas, they’ve got a deal.
And reason would say they’d do the same thing in liberal Harrisburg and Pittsburgh suburban districts, too. So if Pileggi’s bill is passed, and the state is redistricted the way it likely will be, Republicans will effectively be doing their damndest, outside outright ballot stuffing, to hijack the 2012 elections. It’s the perfect storm of power grabbing, gerrymandering, voter disenfranchisement and douchebaggery.
“Certainly, from the standpoint of a Republican, it’s a winner,” said former U.S. senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum in September. Actually, he called it a cheap victory. “Republicans will come out ahead in Pennsylvania in every election.”
Babette Josephs agrees. “I want people to understand what sore winners these Republicans are,” she says. “They control the whole state. They look at one set of rules under which they can’t win—I mean they could work to bring out their own vote; that would be a way to win—but they say, ‘Let’s do it the easy way. Let’s change the rules.’”
Looming over the Roosevelt Boulevard past Rising Sun Avenue, a bleak, lifeless community subsists of a few scattered business and weathered homes. The neighborhood remains one of the few areas in Philly that’s seen a decrease in population over the last 10 years.
Letters to the Editor