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Setting Boundaries

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Pennsylvania's 12th district before (l) and after (r) the last Census. The district may disappear entirely next year. Courtesy Democracy Rising.
  • Pennsylvania's 12th district before (l) and after (r) the last Census. The district may disappear entirely next year. Courtesy Democracy Rising.

Having a hard time ginning up enthusiasm for either gubernatorial candidate, let alone the people running for the state House? Here's one reason to care: The vote you cast in those races may someday decide whether the country goes to war, or the U.S. turns into a socialist paradise.

It's all thanks to a process called "reapportionment."

After each U.S. Census, state governments must redraw the boundaries of legislative districts, both for the state legislature and the U.S. Congress. The people elected Nov. 2, in other words, will set the electoral landscape for 2012 -- and years to follow.

For state legislators, districts are crafted by a five-member commission: Harrisburg Democrats and Republicans choose two members each, with a fifth chosen by the other four or, if they can't agree, by the state Supreme Court. Since justices aren't elected this year, the 2010 election will have little impact on the state's districts. (Besides, observes Tim Potts of political-reform group Democracy Rising, while state politicians slug it out on other issues, "Partisanship does not exist when it comes to keeping power for yourself.")

It's a different story in Congress. Those districts are mapped out not in Washington, but in a bill passed by the state legislature -- just like any other legislation. The bill then goes to the governor for signing. Republicans already have an unshakable hold on the state Senate: "If Tom Corbett wins the governor's race and Republicans take the state House, they can do whatever they want," says Terry Madonna, a political-science professor at Franklin and Marshall College.

Politicos use sophisticated software to follow historic voting patterns almost street-by-street, using it to cobble together districts that are friendly to their party. The result is districts that look like pieces from an improbable jigsaw puzzle.

That's what happened after the 2000 Census, when Republicans controlled state government and the reapportionment process. "It was very partisan last time," says Madonna. Democrats aren't less partisan, he adds, but "It's much harder to draw districts like that when control of the legislature and governor's mansion is split."

So while you may not care who represents you in Harrisburg, your vote could reshape politics in Washington, too. "A budget only lasts a year, but these decisions are for a decade," says Potts.

Not that most of us notice. Thinking about who controls reapportionment, says Madonna, "is a calculation voters just don't do."

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