There are 203 unique districts represented in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. This year, like several before it, a bill was introduced to have fewer districts represented in the House. It was around long enough for those with the inclination to extract some political capital from the bill to do so and, as usual, disappeared until the next time. Recently, there was a court-developed mandated redistricting of the commonwealth’s congressional districts intended to ameliorate the gerrymandered map. During this time, those that cannot benefit from gerrymandered districts, are bemoaning electoral district maps and the immorality of gerrymandering. The common call is for a rational, natural set of districts.
There is some debate on the criteria that should be used for redistricting. The Supreme Court will not allow race to be the basis, but offers no other guidance. All suggestions, sincere and less sincere, call for some rational basis. The basis most cited is an intact “thing,” a community of sort — something that can be said to be an integral “thing” — something that can be represented. What could that thing be?
Twenty-five years ago, in conjunction with a research project on community economic development, I partitioned the state into mutually exclusive and exhaustive communities based on geography’s central place theory. One must first realize, unlike most other states, Pennsylvania is wholly divided into incorporated municipalities. There are 2,583 of them. There are also places that have been identified by the Census Bureau that are not incorporated but part of a bigger incorporated township. The method to partition the state into communities went like this: First, pick the biggest place and draw a buffer around it 10 miles wide. Second, include all places in that buffer as part of the central place’s community. Third, move to the next biggest place and do the same but including only those places that haven’t already been selected for a bigger central place’s community. And so on and so forth. This is not perfect but offered a good approximation, especially when amended by additional knowledge.
Here is another approach. School districts represent a form of social and cultural communities. They are tied together by the special bond of public schools. Again, unlike other states, Pennsylvania has a slew of these, 500 of them. One could apply a similar methodology to the one explained above substituting school districts for municipalities and places. The result is a set of intact social groups, not necessarily homogeneous, but a social group nonetheless — a social group that can be represented. We can leave it up to the voters in these social groups (new electoral districts) to democratically decide how they would like to be represented. They all have a common stake in the representation. Not fully common because there is as much or more that divides than ties together. Still, it is a basis for a “thing.” This could be an approach to redistricting and the rejection of gerrymandering.