The gerrymandering virus

    The budget madhouse has driven more than one law abiding voter to dream of revenge at the ballot box. But as in life, things in politics are never that simple.

    As WHYY’s Chris Satullo explains, in a state where political districts look like a crazy patchwork quilt, gerrymandering has become the most powerful political tool in blocking most changes in Harrisburg.

    Listen: [audio: satullo20091012.mp3]

    Nicole Regalbuoto is pretty torqued off. With good reason.

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    The day care center she runs in Philadelphia has been pushed to the brink by the clownish state budget fiasco in Harrisburg, which has dried up her state subsidies.

    Regalbuoto told WHYY last week that she can’t wait for next year’s election, so she can work to throw those bum-lawmakers out of their jobs.

    But here’s the depressing thing. The same factors that make Harrisburg lawmakers so stone-headed also make them hard to fire for bad behavior.

    Let me offer at least one upbeat observation. Every once in a while, voters do rise up and punish scoundrel lawmakers. In 2006, driven by the furor over legislative pay raises, 55 General Assembly seats did turn over – about 1 in 8.

    But irony is a bear. That turnover turns out to be one of the key factors fueling this year’s budget fiasco. Why? Let’s have a look at another bad Harrisburg habit, gerrymandering.

    Gerrymandering is the dark art of drawing squiggly boundaries for political districts. These zigzag lines make little sense in terms of geography, but make all kinds of sense if the goal is eternal job security for the pols who draw the lines.

    Pennsylvania’s is so highly gerrymandered that very few, maybe 20, of the 419 Harrisburg seats up for grabs in next year’s general election will involve meaningful competition. The Philadelphia district where x lives is unlikely to be one of them. So righteous citizen rage over the budget mess will find few outlets on next year’s ballot.

    Gerrymandering also triggers a quirk that worsened the budget mess. Given how most districts are stacked against the opposing party, the only way an incumbent can lose is a primary challenge from within his party. And such challenges tend to come from the fiery partisan fringe. That’s mostly what happened in 2006.

    As a result, this year’s budget was pawed over by a lot of newbies who hail from the GOP’s angry, anti-government wing – the folks who think taxes are Satan’s handiwork.

    These firebreathers aren’t really equipped to respond to a Great Recession moment when the crying need is for more government activism and spending to wake up a sleepy economy. Hence, impasse.

    So, yes, after this pathetic display in Harrisburg, let’s throw some of the bums out. But this worthwhile task can be far trickier than populist rage imagines.

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