No more jigsaw puzzles

If you go to the polls Tuesday – and I hope you do – you’ll have many issues on your mind: jobs, health care, immigration.

It’s unlikely you’ll give even a random thought to an 18th century governor of Massachusetts.

That’s too bad, really, because it’s what every smug, venal incumbent is hoping.

Among the stakes Tuesday is control of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, now split between parties.  On that, in turn, will hinge the question of whether our state will have any competitive elections in the next decade.

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The outlook: between cloudy and dire.

The legislators we elect Tuesday will turn the 2010 census numbers into district maps that will govern future elections for the U.S. House and for their very own jobs.

A bid to amend the state constitution and get this job out of the hands of self-interested pols crashed and burned.

When you arm politicians with Census numbers and powerful mapping software, the result is maps that look like a demented jigsaw puzzle.   Their only logic is partisan advantage for the party drawing the lines, and job protection for high-ranking legislators.  This is called gerrymandering, a word named after Elbridge Gerry, that Massachusets governor of long ago.

Gerrymandering is a huge reason why politics has grown more divided and gridlocked.  Incumbents in safe, gerrymandered districts have no fear of voters from the other side; they only fear primary challenges from their own party’s fierce partisans.

The maps Pennsylvania drew after the 2000 census were a doozy.  A local mapping firm, Azavea, is a national expert on gerrymandering. On Azavea’s Web site are top 10 lists for the nation’s most gerrymandered districts. Pennsylvania is amply represented. (No surprise, so is Philly.)

These crazy maps slice and dice communities.  Go to tiny Conshohocken, and you can find a house that’s in one congressional district, while its driveway is in another.  If you plop a cow down just right in a farmfield near Limerick, its ears will be in one district, its brisket in a second and its sirloin in a third.

What hope is there to avoid a brutal gerrymandering of our state? On Tuesday, we need to vote ourselves another divided legislature.  That way, neither party will hold the whip hand. They’ll have to deal with each other.  And that will provide a tiny opening for our voices, our interest in competitive elections, to get heard.

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