By Carol Kuniholm
The Fourth of July commemorates the abiding right of the governed to alter or abolish any form of government that ignores the people’s voice.
The Declaration of Independence lists repeated injuries and usurpations that deprived the colonists of a voice in the establishment of laws, concluding: “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injuries.”
Supporters of redistricting reform consider those words this year with sadness. Some of us have spent 30 years asking for redress of an unfair redistricting process and an increasingly intransigent Legislature.
More recently, we have attempted every lawful avenue of request, petitioning our legislators in every way we know, with meetings, calls, emails, letters, postcards, op-Eds, billboards, radio ads, petitions, resolutions of support.
All have been met with silence, or with empty statements of support by those who could schedule a vote or easily move this reform forward.
Many legislators from both sides of the aisle applaud and affirm our efforts. They know that the current system puts far too much power in the hands of just a few leaders, allowing men elected by a tiny fraction of PA voters to draw district lines, set legislative agenda and lock out any voice of dissent.
Those who hold the levers of power have ignored or blocked our continued petitions.
In the past month we have sent sign-on letters, signed by hundreds of constituents, to Senate Republican leadership: President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson; Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, and Senate State Government Committee Chairman John DiSanto, R-Dauphin. There has been no response.
In the House, we have asked now-House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and House State Government Committee Chairman Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, for a vote on bills. But we received no assistance and no acknowledgement of the pressing deadline — now past — for enacting this reform.
Thousands of Fair Districts PA supporters have now seen how arbitrary and unresponsive our state legislature has become.
Dozens have asked legislators for meetings and had no acknowledgment of the request. Dozens have contacted legislators only to be told “I’ll let you know if I have questions. I see no reason to meet.”
Dozens have met with legislators who say “this is a Democrat bill” or “you’re a Democrat group” (both untrue) as if that negates the request or absolves them of the need to consider its merits.
Most of us have been told the following don’t matter:
- Number of cosponsors (the most of any bills in this or the last session)
- Number of resolutions in support (representing over 70% of the population of PA)
- Number of petition signers (over 100,000)
- Evidence of support from statewide polls or surveys (more than ⅔ of PA voters in every recent survey express support for a citizens redistricting commission; even more say the current system needs to change,
We’ve watched with sadness as bills introduced with one or two sponsors speed through both chambers without public comment, expert testimony or any evidence of public support.
We’ve listened with sadness as friendly legislators explain that “the bills that move are the ones leaders choose. It has nothing to do with what voters want.”
We grieve as fellow supporters turn away in disgust, with the sad refrain, “Why bother?”
Our government is in a dangerous place: unaccountable, unresponsive, deeply divided, less and less able to hear the voices of those it promises to serve.
Unless our legislators return this summer, it is now too late to amend the Pennsylvania constitution, and institute an independent commission for legislative redistricting in time for 2021. But there are other possible remedies: strong guardrails on the current redistricting processes, immediate attention to legislative rules that put far too much power in the hands of too few leaders.
But what we want most: a change of heart, a course correction in the halls of Harrisburg. Voters’ voices should matter to every Pennsylvania legislator. All Pennsylvania voters, not just the party faithful in a handful of leaders’ home districts.
Until this changes, nothing changes.
Carol Kuniholm, of Exton, Pa., writes on behalf of the leadership team of Fair Districts PA, an advocacy group deoted to good government and redistricting reform.