In a Comically Drawn Pennsylvania District, the Voters Are Not Amused

Sprawling for 50 miles from the Philadelphia suburbs to the farms of Lancaster County, the Seventh Congressional District snakes past a barn and around a hospital in Coatesville, Pa.

KING OF PRUSSIA, Pa. — It was supposed to be a political firewall. It has become a laughingstock.

The Seventh Congressional District in Pennsylvania is nicknamed Goofy Kicking Donald Duck because its highly contorted shape resembles one Disney character planting a foot in the posterior of another.

But the district got the boot itself this week, along with the rest of the state’s political map. Pennsylvania’s highest court said the Congressional boundaries didn’t just look funny, they also violated the State Constitution, by unfairly favoring the Republicans who drew them.

The decision was greeted with joy by Democrats, and even some Republicans, in the Goofy district, which spreads like an ink blot for 50 miles from the Philadelphia suburbs all the way out to Amish country. Residents have grown weary of having their House seat held up as one of the most gerrymandered in the country, used to explain the country’s descent into tribal politics and voter cynicism.

“The Seventh District has become a national joke,” said Beth Lawn, 72, who lives in a neighborhood she calls “one of Goofy’s fingers.” It was carved from the city of Chester, predominantly poor and black, south of Philadelphia.

Ms. Lawn, a social activist, said it was hard to connect with other constituents to lobby her congressman — Representative Patrick Meehan, a Republican — because the places he represents are so scattered. “I’d have to spend hours trying to figure out where people are,” she said.

Residents of the Seventh tell tales of confusion among next-door neighbors who have different House representatives. Rather than keep communities intact and follow natural borders, the district slices and dices pieces of five counties and 26 municipalities, and tosses them together in a crazy salad.

What the mapmakers were trying to do was to link up enough pockets of conservative voters to ensure that a Republican would keep the seat, no matter the insult to geography or common sense.

As it happens, Mr. Meehan got into political trouble that would have made Walt Disney blush: He admitted this week that he had settled a sexual harassment claim by a former aide he called his “soul mate,” and on Thursday he announced he would not seek re-election.

Elizabeth Moro, a Democrat who wants to run for Mr. Meehan’s seat, said that gathering signatures to get on the primary ballot can be maddening as she tries to figure out who is eligible to sign.

“People say, ‘I want to vote for you, but oh my gosh, maybe I’m not in your district, even though I’m down the road from you,’ ” she said.

Like Pennsylvania’s 17 other House districts, the Seventh was drawn using mapmaking software that analyzes voting patterns block by block. The idea is to set the boundaries so they dilute one party’s voting power and create as many safe seats as possible for the other. In Pennsylvania, the Republicans who control the State Legislature wielded the mapmaking mouse, but in other states it has been the Democrats.

Some of the Seventh’s twists and turns are bizarre. At the point on the map where Goofy’s foot contacts Donald Duck’s rump, the district is precisely as wide as the Brandywine Hospital.

To the west, the boundary juts across the grounds of an elementary school, bisects the Kingswood Lane cul-de-sac and heads to the north of a Turkey Hill market before plunging south again, all to exclude the Democratic-leaning town of Coatesville.

Jim Carney, 76, a retiree who lives near Coatesville, said districts should be drawn along community lines, not by party registration. “You take a contiguous group of counties and you put them together and say, ‘That’s your district,’ ” he said. “You don’t count the Republicans and Democrats and independents, you count the heads.”

The Supreme Court long ago ruled that gerrymandering to divide voters by race was unconstitutional. But it has yet to say the same about doing it by party. The court is expected to hand down a major decision this year on whether partisan mapmaking has gone too far.

In Pennsylvania, though, it was the State Supreme Court, not the federal courts, that threw out the map on Monday and ordered it redrawn in time for the midterm elections in the fall.

Democrats in the Seventh are not the only ones who complain about it. Dave Dumeyer, chairman of the Republican Committee of Lancaster County, has never liked that the map splits his county, putting its eastern portion into the Seventh to add conservative Amish voters as a counterweight to the increasingly Democratic Philadelphia suburbs.

“I can’t say we’re happy about it,” Mr. Dumeyer said. “I think most people here would like to see Lancaster County whole again.”

There are zigs and zags all along the perimeter of the Seventh, roping conservative rural areas in and shoving Democratic enclaves out.

At the juncture where Goofy’s head connects to his body in Montgomery County, the district is only as wide as a parking lot — the one at Creed’s Seafood and Steaks in the community of King of Prussia.

The nonprofit group that sued to overturn the Pennsylvania map, the Public Interest Law Center, recently held a fund-raiser at the restaurant, the symbolic ground zero of its case. Ms. Lawn, the Chester resident, was there; she is one of the plaintiffs in the suit.

Jim Creed, the restaurant’s owner, hopes that being a gerrymandering landmark might be good for business at his “Cheers”-like establishment, where the $31 Surf and Turf features filet mignon, shrimp and a Chianti demi-glace.

“We like Republicans and Democrats equally — that’s a quote,” Mr. Creed said.

From the restaurant, the Seventh’s boundary doubles back east along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, then bisects the township of Upper Merion, depositing many Democratic-leaning voters there in the 13th District, which includes part of Philadelphia.

For a few blocks, the boundary runs down the middle of Valley Forge Road, named for the spot nearby where George Washington and his army huddled in the winter of 1777 in the fight for American self-government. On Thursday, residents on both sides of the road reflected on the principle of one-person, one-vote, which critics say is undermined by gerrymandering.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Chris Light, 49, a Starbucks supervisor who lives on the Seventh District side of the road, talking about the way the map was drawn to help Mr. Meehan. “He’s not going to represent the concerns of the people. He’s going to protect his base.”

Kathy Anderson, 60, a nurse and a Republican, was surprised to learn that Mr. Meehan was her congressman. “I thought he’s in Delaware County,” she said — which is correct, though her confusion was understandable. Mr. Meehan’s home in picturesque Chadds Ford is a world away, in suburban terms, from hers in Upper Merion.

Even so, Ms. Anderson said she was glad to be living in the Seventh District, and not across the street in the 13th, which stretches to take in some city neighborhoods. “I wouldn’t want to be assigned with Philadelphia,” she said.

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