Philadelphia’s council districts are among the most gerrymandered in America — that’s changing this election

current council districts

The governor in Massachusetts back in 1812 was a man named Elbridge Gerry. And all he was trying to do was stay in office. So he decided to change the geography of the districts, so that likely party voters were all in one area, and unlikely party voters were split in different districts.

His scheme produced a map with a district that had lines drawn to look like a salamander, and “gerrymandering” was born. Since then, it’s become a time-honored practice in American politics. It’s an issue that hits home here — Pennsylvania is the second-most-gerrymandered state in the country, and Philadelphia’s council districts are some of the most gerrymandered local districts in America.

Those drawn lines fueled by what amounts to legal political election-rigging are changing this election, and the new Philadelphia districts with cleaner lines will take effect in January 2016.

What the council districts are like now

Take a look at what Philadelphia’s current districts look like. The 1st District, represented by Mark Squilla, goes all the way from Oregon Avenue up to Port Richmond. The 7th District snakes around North Philadelphia, and the 5th district kinda looks like a dinosaur with a head that ends in the Northeast.

A 2006 study by Azavea, a Philly-based geospatial analysis company, showed that Philly’s 7th district was the most gerrymandered municipal district in America. The 5th district was the third-most gerrymandered.

But they weren’t always like this.

How we got here

After the 1990 census, a battle ensued over how to redistrict, mostly at the behest of former councilman (and onetime criminal) Rick Mariano who wanted to ensure he retained his seat on council and not be voted out by a growing Latino population in his area that wanted him replaced.

Mariano wanted his district to stretch around primarily Latino areas and into Northeast Philadelphia in the 56th ward (run by political friend John Sabatina) where he’d have better success at garnering votes. The redistricting also fell on an election year, so tension built between a lame duck council/ mayor combo and the incoming politicians who would take their place.

Mayor Wilson Goode, who was outgoing at the time, hated the redistricting, called it unconstitutional and vetoed it. The outgoing council decided they weren’t going to get the new districting plan past Goode, so they pushed it aside and effectively into the laps of the new council, to be headed by John Street.

Street’s council passed the new district lines, and new Mayor Ed Rendell struck a deal with him — they drew new lines that kept the council districts basically as they were, but the Latino voting bloc was split among several districts instead of in one, which would have provided the group better representation on council.

Rendell admitted at the time that he was uncomfortable with the decision, but didn’t want the new council to suffer (their pay is held until a plan is passed) because the prior council couldn’t make a decision. Meet, gerrymandered Philadelphia.

(FWIW — their plan to effectively disenfranchise Latino voters in the 7th District didn’t last long. Maria Quiñones-Sánchez won a seat in 2007 anyway.)

What’s changing this election

Two decades later, after the 2010 census results were public, it was time for council to once again reconsider its oddly-shaped districts. And the big names in that task were then-Councilman Frank DiCicco and (now mayoral candidate) Jim Kenney.

The new boundaries, passed to start taking place during the 2015 election and in the 2016 calendar year, are much more compact than the previous ones. The Inquirer reported at the time that even though the redistricting failed to achieve council districts with equal population, they ended much of the gerrymandering that was part of the 5th and 7th districts.

Only two council members at the time voted “no” on the plan, both being Republicans. The biggest loser in the deal was Brian O’Neill, who complained the new lines in his 10th district gave him much of the 56th ward which has historically voted very Democratic.

Remember what the old council districts looked like? Here’s what they’re now going to look like:

See! Much prettier and normal and less of a jumbled-up mess. Here’s what the 7th district — the most gerrymandered in America — looked like before (it’s represented by Quiñones-Sánchez):

And what it will look like now:

And here’s what the dinosaur-shaped current 5th District (represented by Darrell Clarke) looks like:

See, look: Dinosaur.

And what it will look like after this election:

Wondering if your council district is changing for this election? Check out the map on the city’s website to enter your address and see the new lines.

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