How the Overdue Ward Redistricting Hurts Local and State Redistricting Efforts

(Philadelphia Ward Map)

Once a decade, political districts of many kinds are required to be redrawn to reflect population changes measured in the Census, including Congressional districts at the federal level, state House and Senate districts, and local City Council districts. 

But there’s another set of political boundaries that never get redrawn: ward boundaries.

Ward and division boundaries are the building blocks of those other kinds of political districts, but are themselves not always frequently redrawn to reflect population changes. Philadelphia's division (sometimes referred to as precinct) boundaries can be redrawn administratively by the City Commissioners when their voting populations increase past a certain point, but they haven't been redrawn at all since 2019 and are overdue for some changes this year.

But the city's ward boundaries haven’t been redrawn since the 1950’s, and are very far from having equal population as a result. The 2019 Citizens’ Guide from the City Commissioners breaks down the number of registered voters by ward, which shows how off the numbers are. And keep in mind, this is only the voting population, not the entire residential population, so these population disparities may be even larger in some cases. 

Why does this matter? 

One practical reason it matters has to do with party primary endorsements and other voting issues within the parties. The way the Democratic and Republican City Committees are organized, each ward gets one ward leader who serves as that ward’s representative to the county party. And they each get a vote on party matters, like who the party endorses in primaries, whether the party supports different ballot questions, any proposed bylaws changes, and so on.

But with different ward leaders representing radically different numbers of voters, this introduces a lot of unfairness into who is represented within the Democratic Party. Some wards like wards 39, 40, and 66 resolve the issue by splitting into A and B sections, each with its own ward leader. But there are some nearly equally populous wards that don't do this, like wards 5, 8, 21, 27, 34, and 58, each of whom should have at least 2 ward leaders—and votes at City Committee— but instead only have one. That dilutes the voice of the voters in those wards on Party primary endorsements and other important decisions.  

The other practical reason why unequal ward populations matter is that state law has a strong preference for not breaking up wards in drawing other kinds of districts like Congressional seats, or state House seats, or City Council Districts. Map-makers do their best to keep wards intact when drawing new districts, but ​​are forced to contend with some huge ward geographies that under-index on population, while also trying to keep population roughly equal. 

If the ward map were amended to create more wards (why not 100?) with roughly equal population, updated on a regular schedule like other political units, it would be easier to create more compact districts and keep communities of interest together.

The good news is that the process for redrawing the ward maps is a citizen-initiated process, where it only takes 100 good petition signatures in each affected ward to make a Court of Common Pleas panel of judges consider a new map. If approved by the panel, a map that would make changes to 10 wards or more would go to a citywide ballot referendum, while a map that made changes to fewer than that would only go to a referendum vote in affected wards. 

So it is possible that with fewer than 2,000 signatures, a group of canvassers armed with a strong map submission could initiate a vote on a citywide ward redistricting ballot referendum. With fresh population data now available, it’s a good time to start thinking about the possibilities.

If this idea is something you're interested in talking about more or campaigning for in some capacity, send us an email at [email protected] 

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  • Jon Geeting
    published this page in Blog 2022-01-28 16:49:54 -0500