Citizens from Berks County were among more than 800 concerned Pennsylvanians who rallied in Harrisburg on April 16 to call for a permanent solution to the extreme partisan gerrymandering that has seeded political gridlock and apathy for decades and recently put the state in the national spotlight.
Led by Fair Districts PA, a non-partisan citizens group pushing a fair and transparent redistricting process in Pennsylvania, The Rally to End Gerrymandering brought attention to a solution, currently in front of legislators, that would amend the state constitution to create an independent citizens redistricting commission charged with adjusting state legislative districts. The proposed legislation — corresponding bills in the House and Senate — reforms a redistricting process that is currently handled by the legislators themselves and is widely regarded as a conflict of interest.
“We seek accountable government and we went to Harrisburg to tell our elected leaders that this is an issue vital to Berks and Schuylkill County voters. We need a nonpartisan transparent citizens commission to draw legislative districts. Legislators need to take action to end gerrymandering right now, or it will affect them in the upcoming election,” said Arthur Naylor, Fair Districts PA coordinator from Berks and Schuylkill Counties.
Citizens packed the rotunda of the Capitol building, filling four stories of stairs and balconies to listen to speakers, cheer and chant — calling for quick action on the legislation, which would need to be passed in both the House and Senate by the end of the legislative session in June to be on schedule for enactment before the next redistricting cycle following the 2020 U.S. Census.
“We have been asking for reform through thousands of emails, calls, letters and visits, and everyone who came out to the Capitol today has been part of the conversation,” said Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA. “We know gerrymandering undermines accountable government, and we are gathered here to make clear that that must change. Through gerrymandered maps the leadership of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has insulated itself from the will of the people, ignoring constituents, defying colleagues and laughing in the face of real representation. Today we say ‘enough.’ We are here to ask for reform that returns real power to the people of Pennsylvania.”
More than a dozen bus loads of people rolled into the Capitol city, with participation bolstered in response to an 11th hour vote in the House State Government Committee last week that amended HB722 — replacing provisions for an independent citizens redistricting committee with a committee of six legislators, four appointed by party leaders —just before it was slated for a vote to discharge it from the committee. The amendment, which was passed by a party-line vote after less than 30 minutes of discussion, and has since been widely panned in the media, became a focal point for many of the speakers at the rally.
“We had a setback last week when 15 members of the State Government Committee voted to put politicians back in charge, but we’re not satisfied with that vote,” said Rep. Steve Samuelson, prime-sponsor of the House bill. “We’re going to keep fighting to restore the language of HB722 and bring legislation to have an independent redistricting commission pass in the House and Senate. We want to do that by June 30 and we need your help. I’m glad you’re all here today lending your voice to one of the largest rallies I’ve seen in the history of Harrisburg.”
In addition to rallying in the rotunda, citizens in attendance visited the offices of their legislators and attended informational panels about the legislative and redistricting process, led by the bills’ sponsors and leaders of good-government organizations from across the state.
David Thornburgh, president and CEO of one such group, the Committee of Seventy, a political watchdog group in Philadelphia, suggested that “gerrymandering has proved itself to be the bug in the operating system of democracy. It leads to dysfunction, it shuts out voter, and it leads to political redlining. It’s a pernicious practice and it is not going to make itself better without our help.”
“We have to remind ourselves that campaigns and elections are like job interviews for the people that we would like to represent us,” Thornburgh said. “And on what planet would we have job interviews where the candidate applying for the job chooses the interview committee that that person would like to have interview them? That’s just nonsense!”
At the rally, contingents from Berks and Schuylkill counties sought out Reps. Jerry Knowles, Barry Jozwiak, Gary Day, and Ryan Mackenzie and Senators Bob Mensch and David Argallto ask for their support of fair redistricting reform legislation. They thanked Rep Mark Rozzi, Tom Caltagirone, Mark Gillan, Jim Cox, Mike Tobash,and David Maloney and Senators JudySchwenk and John Rafferty for supporting redistricting reform.Our contingents visited House State Committee Chair Rep. Daryl Metcalfe to urge reinstating HB722 in its original form.
At the time of its amendment last week, HB722 was the most co-sponsored piece of legislation this session, with 110 representatives putting their names on it. Corresponding legislation in the Senate, Senate Bill 22, now has 22 co-sponsors. It recently received its first hearing in the Senate State Government Committee and is slated for a second on April 24.
Many speakers took time to thank sponsors of the legislation for their hard work thus far, while also imploring them to keep pushing for this reform. In order to pass a constitutional amendment in Pennsylvania, legislation must be passed in both the House and Senate in successive sessions and then approved by a statewide vote.
“Now is the time to create fair districts,” said Tim Stevens, leader of the Black Political Empowerment Project, to the energized crowd. “We need a new reality. We want people’s votes to actually mean something. We want people to feel that they actually have an opportunity to help determine who represents them. And we want to see the end of divisive and continued partisan bickering that is tearing our commonwealth apart and tearing our nation apart,” he continued, as the crowd chanted “This is what democracy looks like!”
The issue of gerrymandering has received national attention in the last few months as lawsuits challenging the legality of congressional maps in Wisconsin and Maryland reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Pennsylvania, challenges to the state’s congressional maps exposed the extent to which the practice of creating congressional districts to protect incumbents has undermined representative democracy in the state. These lawsuits, which were ultimately decided in the U.S. Court of Appeals and the State Supreme Court, resulted in a new legislative map. But that map will be subject to redistricting following the 2020 Census, which is why Fair Districts PA is rallying citizens behind a permanent reformation of the process.
“Democracy is a fragile thing and it must be protected,” said Rep. Eric Roe, the Republican prime sponsor of HB722. “Just like freedom, democracy is a fragile thing and it must be fought for and protected, and that is what we are going to do with an independent redistricting commission. There is a day coming when politicians will no longer be in the room when maps are drawn. There is a day coming when ‘we the people’ will be in that room and the sign on the door outside will say ‘no politicians allowed.’”
With primary elections looming next month, the subtext of the rally was clearly an effort to move redistricting reform front-and-center for voters across the state.
“This will be an election issue on May 15 and November 6,” Kuniholm said. “Today the people of Pennsylvania stood up for their rights as citizens of a representative democracy. But the fight to reclaim our democracy is far from over. Citizens of Pennsylvania are letting their legislators know that they want redistricting reform, and this issue is not going away.”
For more information, visit: www.fairdistrictspa.com.