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Pa. is poster child for gerrymandering

PHOTO PROVIDED Pictured, one of the slides shown during Dr. Carol Kuniholm’s presentation on gerrymandering Tuesday night. Inset, Dr. Kuniholm speaks during her presentation.

By KAREN ELIAS

For The Express

LOCK HAVEN — “Pennsylvania is the poster child for gerrymandering.” After the 2011 redistricting process, Pennsylvania was among the worst gerrymandered states in the country, according to Dr. Carol Kuniholm, who presented a talk called “Maps Matter” at Lock Haven University’s Hall of Flags on Tuesday, Feb. 25.

What is Gerrymandering, and why does it matter?

Kuniholm, the co-founder and chair of Fair Districts PA, put it clearly: “Gerrymandering is the manipulation of electoral maps for political advantage.” And it matters because it is used to determine elections.

Every ten years, the federal census data is used to redraw our congressional and state legislative districts. Using sophisticated technology that reveals and predicts voting patterns, political leaders are able to manipulate district lines to benefit their own party and allow it to stay in power – regardless of what voters may want. Various techniques are used to reduce competition and give one side a strong advantage, essentially ignoring the complexities of the political arena and silencing voters’ voices. We end up, Kuniholm said, with safe districts where elected representatives don’t have to pay attention to the voters and their needs.

Both parties are guilty of using gerrymandering to their advantage. While Republicans have manipulated Pennsylvania’s districts, Democrats are winning the game in Delaware and Maryland. “We become checkers being moved around a board in someone else’s game,” said Kuniholm. And voters are harmed.

So maps do matter. Under the current system, our votes count less. Outside money and influence control our parties’ agendas. We have fewer options at the ballot box when incumbents are allowed to run unopposed. And even well-meaning politicians can’t do their jobs. As a result, we lose confidence in our elections and in our democratic system. And we lose faith that our voices count.

Effects on our

communities

Kuniholm was especially persuasive when she talked about the effects of gerrymandering on our communities. Only 7 percent of bills – even those with strong public support – ever make it out of Pennsylvania’s legislature. Funding for schools across the state is the most inequitable in the country, with some schools in poorer districts having no financial support even for a library. “Bills meant to address this inequity go nowhere,” she said, “in session after session.”

Likewise, there are 18 cities in Pennsylvania, including State College and Williamsport, with lead exposure that is worse than that of Flint, Michigan. As of 2019, our state has the sixth highest percentage of children who are suffering from lead poisoning, a known cause of permanent brain damage. In spite of the fact that lead has been found in the air as well as the water in many places, only 30 percent of children across the state have been tested. Over the past 20 years, 25 bills have been introduced designed to address the lead problem, and none have been voted on. The only successful initiatives have been resolutions creating Lead Awareness Days.

As Kuniholm said, “We can buy bottled water, but we can’t buy bottled air.”

With gerrymandering in place, our politicians become complacent, believe in their own entitlement, and stop listening. Incumbents with seniority control the rules. “Gerrymandering,” said Kuniholm, “is the keystone that holds corruption in place in our system.”

What can we do?

Kuniholm’s organization, Fair Districts PA, a non-partisan, all-volunteer coalition working on redistricting reform in Pennsylvania, has introduced bills to put power in the hands of ordinary citizens. The bills, introduced in both the House and the Senate with bi-partisan support, and with the most co-sponsors in this session, call for an 11-member redistricting commission that would consist of four Republicans, four Democrats, and three people unaffiliated with either major party. Other states that have adopted such commissions have experienced improvements in fair representation, competitiveness, and voter trust.

The commission will operate independently, in a non-partisan manner, with strict transparency, and will allow for diversity of representation. The map-drawing process will allow for public input by being placed, for example, on a public website and by being subject to formal state-wide hearings.

The bills, HB 22 and 23, and SB 1022 and 1023, the first step in amending our constitution, will need to be passed by the legislature by the end of June to have a chance of having a commission in place by 2021.

Support for redistricting reform is widespread. In a statewide poll, 67 percent of residents – both Democrats and Republicans – want an independent commission to draw state legislative district lines that is free of political influence and operates in total transparency. Here in Clinton County, we were the first county in which our commissioners and every municipality signed on in support of a redistricting resolution. Our representative, Stephanie Borowicz, however, has yet to sign on.

There are legislators on both sides of the aisle who want this to work, but reform will only happen in Pennsylvania, Kuniholm said, if the people insist on change. Until we fix gerrymandering, we won’t be able to enact those legislative issues that matter to us the most.

“Current Pennsylvania law lets politicians choose their voters. Democracy means voters choose their politicians,” according to Kuniholm. She made a compelling case for enacting redistricting reform on Tuesday night. Help end gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. Go to fairdistrictspa.com for more information.

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