On March 30, Bryn Mawr College hosted a discussion about redistricting in Pennsylvania and the public campaign to change the system through which district lines for political offices are designated. Nearly two hundred and fifty people were in attendance for the event held in McPherson Auditorium. The event was part of Bryn Mawr College’s series on voice, with this event demonstrating how the voices of American citizens are being challenged by rules that benefit the wealthy and those in political power. Carol Kuniholm, co-founder of the organization Fair Districts PA, a group that advocates for reforms to the redistricting system, was the main speaker at the event.
Ms. Kuniholm wanted to provide as much information as possible. “It’s important for us to understand the system, it’s important for us to dig in and look below the surface, and it’s important for us to engage. If we don’t know what the problems are, we won’t be able to solve them,” she said.
Under the current rules, political parties that control state legislatures and governorships have an enormous amount of influence in drawing district lines that decide who votes in which district for state and congressional seats. District lines are redrawn every ten years after a national census is taken.. Under current state and federal law, districts have to be drawn with roughly equal population sizes. However, the current system of redistricting is being accosted for using a practice known as “Gerrymandering.” Pennsylvania is a target for gerrymandering because it consistently faces reapportionment due to population loss, requiring that the lines be redrawn for the remaining districts.
The word gerrymandering was created in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts state senate election districts under Governor Elbridge Gerry. In 1812, Governor Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his party, the Democratic-Republican Party. When mapped, one of the contorted districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a mythological salamander. Thus the name “gerrymander” came to be used. It is loosely defined as the manipulation of redistricting for political advantages. It is used by both major parties, and they benefit from its existence because it allows them to protect incumbents and further marginalize third party candidates (1).
Fair Districts PA, which is a non-for-profit and non-partisan organization, believes that the current redistricting system in Pennsylvania gives too much influence to political officeholders and powerful special interests. Carol Kuniholm shared her perspectives about the issue and how students could be involved in the solution. Fair Districts PA proclaims to be an independent coalition of citizens who want to establish a non-partisan commission to draw district lines in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania is a target for gerrymandering for several reasons. First, campaign finance laws in Pennsylvania are some of the most lax in the entire country, which increases the potential influx of outside money from lobbyists, Super PACs, and corporations. Second, Pennsylvania has fewer voters per district, which makes the races easier to influence. Third, if there are fewer voters in the districts, then it takes less money to flip them which makes campaigns in Pennsylvania rich for targeting from special interests. What all of these factors point to, according to Fair Districts PA, is that the system is not incentivized so that elected officials have to practice good governance to keep their job. Rather, it is incentivized so that redistricting becomes a “partisan chess game” that inflames political tensions and produces gridlock that does not solve the problems of the people of Pennsylvania.
Fair Districts PA is actively trying to get legislation through the Pennsylvania Statehouse to establish an independent citizens redistricting commission. They are currently supporting Senate Bill 22, which is a Redistricting Reform bill that was modeled in part on a similar bill in California. The prime cosponsors of the bill are Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-18) and Sen. Mario Scavello (R-40). The bill, pending approval by the house and the governor, would create a new 11-member redistricting commission whose members would be citizen volunteers that meet qualifications developed by the Secretary of State. These qualifications would create pools of candidates that are not elected officials or people who have a vested interest in their own personal political success. Ideally this process would greatly reduce partisan influence over the process. Ms. Kuniholm made the point that while it is impossible to have a completely objective process, the conflict of interest created by having legislators draw their own district lines can and should be eliminated.
When asked about what message she would want students at Bryn Mawr and Haverford to take away from the campaign to end gerrymandering, Kuniholm made an appeal to the responsibility citizens have to make their voices heard when change needs to happen.
“What I would like people to realize is that democracy does not run on autopilot, and the values that matter to us get swallowed up by wealthy interests if we don’t defend them.” At one point, Kuniholm joked that everyone had told her she was “wasting her life with this.” In response, Kuniholm said that “If not now, when, and if not me, who?”
The response from those who attended was overwhelmingly positive. After the talk, many attendees, both young and elderly, filled out information sheets to join the Fair Districts PA’s cause. Some students that attended found just being able to learn more about gerrymandering in the modern American political system was a valuable experience.
“After attending, learning about what [redistricting and gerrymandering] are, seeing the effects of gerrymandering and redistricting, it’s incredible that a lot of people don’t know what these things are,” said Tania Ortega ‘19. “I really like that they are encouraging people to get involved, that a lot of the strength of the organization is going to come from us, from the people.”
Kuniholm echoed similar sentiments, saying that only through the American people engaging with the system will things change. “We need to be a part of democracy for it to work properly.”
Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. 2004. “Gerrymandering.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/gerrymandering.