County stands behind ‘Fair Districts’ 100 percent

SARAH SMELTZ/THE EXPRESS Fair Districts PA County Coordinator Rose Reeder and North Central Regional Coordinator Patti O’Neill pose with Commissioners Paul Conklin, Pete Smeltz and Jeff Snyder.

LOCK HAVEN — Chris LaRose stood on the steps of the Clinton County Courthouse, playing guitar and singing the words “Susquehanna is home to me,” while Clinton County residents gathered, holding signs that said, “Gerrymandering cuts voters out” and “Gerrymandering is scandal.”

Most of these people were volunteers with and supporters of Fair Districts PA, a nonpartisan organization working to stop gerrymandering in the state of Pennsylvania by the 2020 census.

Gerrymandering refers to the manipulation of boundaries of an electoral constituency to favor one political party. The practice got its name in 1812, when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill to redistrict the state in favor of his Democratic-Republican party. On a map, one of the districts north of Boston reportedly looked like a salamander. The word is a combination of his name and salamander.

But if you look at a map of Pennsylvania’s congressional districts, you might see shapes more bizarre than salamanders.

Concerned community members gathered Thursday at the courthouse to celebrate the support of all 29 municipalities in the county for a resolution that opposes gerrymandering.

“Gerrymandering takes away the value of people’s votes,” said Rose Reeder, a Woodward Township resident and county coordinator for Fair Districts PA who traveled to each municipality garnering support for the resolution.

“I’m very intense about this,” she said.

Other Fair Districts PA volunteers Joan Heller, Patricia Hancock, Sandi DeBonis and Dan Reeder joined her, traveling everywhere from the city of Lock Haven to tiny, remote Leidy Township.

“We had a wonderful time visiting every municipality,” Heller said.

When Reeder was campaigning for support, she said some people met her goals with skepticism.

“People looked at me like I was crazy,” she said. She said they told her, “We have 29 municipalities, Republicans, Democrats–you’ll never do it.”

But they were wrong.

“It is bigger than (either political) party,” Reeder said. “That’s what we’re proving today.”

Jamie Mogil, the state level coordinator of resolutions and legislative strategy committee member for Fair Districts PA, said the movement to end gerrymandering gives “everyday folks” tools and opportunities to get involved in the democratic process.

“We’re really the only democracy in the world where we let our politicians draw our maps,” she said.

Currently, Clinton County shares a congressional district with Erie, which is more than 200 miles to the northwest of Lock Haven, the county seat.

The goal of stopping gerrymandering, Mogil said, is to “remove partisan politics” from redistricting that happens every 10 years, after the national census.

“Let’s make it fair, let’s make it transparent,” she said.

Mogil praised legislative efforts to stop gerrymandering in the state, including House Bill 722 and Senate Bill 22, which would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to establish an independent citizens commission to redistrict congressional, state house and senate districts. This effectively could remove political influence from redistricting.

State Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven, is a co-sponsor on HB 722. But Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-Brockway, who represents Clinton County in the 25th District, has not shown his support for SB 22.

Scarnati is currently a defendant in a federal court case, Agre v. Wolf, where a group of Pennsylvania voters claim the 2011 congressional district map was redrawn in a way that took the power of their votes away. The plaintiffs also assert that the 2011 plan unlawfully placed citizens into congressional districts based upon their likely voting preferences.

The three Clinton County commissioners were on hand at the courthouse Thursday, and Reeder commended them for being the first to sign onto the resolution.

“If you could get all the municipalities to agree on anything, that’s an amazing achievement,” said Commissioner Pete Smeltz, with a laugh.

He said stopping gerrymandering is not a partisan issue.

For reference, two of the commissioners are Republicans and one is a Democrat. As of 2014, 44.3 percent of Clinton County registered voters were Democrats, 42.9 percent were Republicans and 12.8 percent were third-party voters.

“This is about a principle,” said Smeltz, a Republican. “What’s right is right. That’s why we chose to do this.”

Commissioner Jeff Snyder, also a Republican, commended Reeder for her tenacity.

“We’re on the right side of this… this was a no-brainer,” he said of signing the resolution. “I wish everything I had to do was this easy.”

“I’m very proud of Rose with the persistence she had…to educate people,” said Commissioner Paul Conklin, the Democrat. “We really need to get more people on board with this.”

Reeder said Clinton County is lucky to have leaders who listen to their people.

“Our people are dedicated,” she said. “This is government as it should be.”

Janaan Maggs, legislative assistant to State Rep. Hanna, who could not attend the press conference, presented Reeder and Fair Districts PA with a proclamation of his support.

His statement said he was “proud of the efforts to bring issues to the forefront” and excited for the prospect to “restore representative democracy.”

Lock Haven Mayor Bill Baney said he cares about ending gerrymandering because Clinton County’s congressional district is too big to accurately represent voters’ interests.

“The district goes from here to Erie, that’s just too many miles,” he said.

He said he would like to see the congressional district become smaller, like it was many years ago.

“I’d like to see the bill pass in Harrisburg,” he said. “That’s the big obstacle.”

Mogil of Fair Districts PA, who used to work as an attorney in voter protection, said she realized that statutory reform was the most effective way to protect voter interests.

“When we get to an election, it’s too late to protect the voter,” she said. “We’re never going to get there without true reform.”

Mogil said coming to Lock Haven to celebrate Clinton County’s 100 percent commitment to end partisanship in redistricting was especially important because local governments often suffer the worst effects of gerrymandering.

She said both political parties benefit from gerrymandering, depending on the census data and party control.

“We’ve seen a lot of push-back,” especially in districts where either party has a stronghold, she said.

Currently, Fair Districts PA has solidified 13 county resolutions, more than 150 municipal resolutions and has more than 200 resolutions pending.

“This is giving local communities a voice back,” Mogil said.

Reeder said by pushing legislation to end gerrymandering and uniting municipalites and counties against partisan redistricting, everyone regains the value of their vote.

“Clinton County is on the right side of history and we are leading the way,” she said.

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