New Election Map 'Energizes' PA Voters, Makes Races Competitive - Activist

© REUTERS / Mark MakelaA man enters a voting booth at West Philadelphia High School on U.S. midterm election day morning in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November 4, 2014
A man enters a voting booth at West Philadelphia High School on U.S. midterm election day morning in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November 4, 2014 - Sputnik International
WASHINGTON (Sputnik) - Voters in the US state of Pennsylvania are excited about this year's congressional elections because a new electoral map has eliminated a Republican advantage and made the races more competitive, Chair of the advocacy group Fair Districts PA Carole Kuniholm told Sputnik.

"It has completely energized the electorate. People are excited about congressional races for the first time in a very long time," Kuniholm said.

Pennsylvania has long been a crucial swing state in presidential elections, including in the 2016 poll. President Donald Trump won the state with 48.18 percent of the vote, compared to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's 47.46 percent.

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Trump's razor thin margin of victory — just 0.72 percent — illustrates how closely divided the state's residents are between the Republican and Democratic parties. But in recent years, this near-even breakdown in party affiliation has not been reflected in the state's representation in the US House of Representatives, because the map of districts used for congressional polls gave Republicans a strong advantage.

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In January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the map that had been used in every congressional election since 2011. The court said the map, which was drawn by the state's elected Republican officials, was unlawful because it was gerrymandered, or manipulated to favor a particular party.

After throwing out the old map, the court drew up a new one that most observers say will give Democrats a better shot of winning House seats in the upcoming elections.

Though the state is home to an almost equal number of Republican and Democratic registered voters, the old map nearly guaranteed that Republicans would win 13 House seats while Democrats would get just five, Kuniholm explained. In fact, the old map produced the same 13-5 split in every House election that the state has held since the districts were drawn in 2011.

But now that a new map has been introduced, no one can predict the outcome of the vote, Kuniholm said.

"It certainly opens the race up. It’s made it far more competitive, and it’s made it much more important for voters to pay attention and to get to know candidates, which is the way that democracy is supposed to work," she said.

The suspense created by the new map has already boosted citizens' participation in this year's election, Kuniholm said, adding that more people are campaigning than ever before, and new candidates are running in districts that were previously regarded as impossible to contest.

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Though Kuniholm welcomed the fact that this year's House vote will be more competitive, she warned that the state will likely face the same problem of gerrymandering in the future unless an entirely new approach to drawing maps is adopted.

The new map will remain in use for two more polls before elected state officials get to redraw the districts. And if history is any guide, they will almost certainly seek to stack the odds in their party's favor.

"We’re the only democracy that allows legislators to draw their own maps or legislative leaders to draw their own maps. It’s a huge conflict of interest. It’s like allowing the coach on one team to choose the umpire that they like and to put rules in place that benefit their own team. It’s completely unacceptable," Kuniholm said.

The state should instead work to create an independent commission to draw election districts, she suggested. Such commissions could be comprised of four representatives from each party and three third-party or unaffiliated members.

"So you’d have to have at least one person from each of those three groups to approve a map. So you couldn’t draw a map that completely benefited one group and the other group would be stuck with it. Everybody would have to draw maps that their opponents would agree to," she explained.

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Such reforms are necessary to ensure proper representation of the state's diverse communities, many of which were marginalized under the old maps, Kuniholm argued.

One such community is the county surrounding Erie, a city on the shores of Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes in the northeastern United States. Traditionally, congressmen from Erie County have participated in a Great Lakes coalition in Congress to champion the shared interests of their lakeside communities.

But when state officials drew the 2011 map, they split Erie County in two, and extended both new districts into neighboring mountain and rural regions, where residents have vastly different interests.

"All of our small cities are cracked. All of our small cities should be the core of a House district and sometimes two House districts," Kuniholm said.

Voters in Pennsylvania and other US states will head to the polls on November 6 to fill 435 seats in the House, one-third of the 100-member Senate, and a number of statewide positions, including governorships. The outcome of the vote will determine whether the Republican Party maintains control of both houses of Congress. In addition, the results of the midterms are typically seen as a referendum on a sitting president’s performance midway through his or her 4-year term.

The views and opinions expressed by the contributors do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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