Mark Nordenberg speaks at a University of Pittsburgh event. (Courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh)
By Salewa Ogunmefun
Throughout the legislative reapportionment process, we at Pennsylvania Voice, along with our statewide partner organizations, have consistently advocated that the new state legislative maps that will determine who has political power in Pennsylvania for the next ten years be drawn with racial equity as a core consideration.
In fact, our engagement with this issue predates the reapportionment process itself. In 2020 we implemented a statewide coordinated Get Out the Count plan to engage the Pennsylvania households that we identified as being most at risk of being missed in the 2020 Census.
We and our partners have volunteered to testify at multiple public hearings held by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, and I was also invited by the LRC to testify again about the community mapping efforts we undertook with our partners.
Beginning with the premise that no one can draw the boundaries of our world better than we can, and that community voices must be considered in order for the new set of legislative maps to truly be equitable, we undertook a process of developing a series of Unity Maps. In order to produce these maps, we solicited input from more than 700 members of BIPOC communities across Pennsylvania to produce proposed maps for eight districts in five counties across the Commonwealth, and we introduced the maps with a rally at the Capitol.
Prior to that, Pennsylvania Voice, led by our partners, advocated for an end to the sinister practice known as “prison gerrymandering” that robs communities of color of the resources and power that they deserve by counting incarcerated individuals, who are disproportionately from BIPOC communities, in the largely white areas where state prisons are located instead of their home communities. We argued that this process was deeply unfair and contributed to generational cycles of poverty, and the LRC largely ended this discriminatory practice.
After all this vital work, the LRC released a draft set of maps that demonstrated a commitment to ensuring that Pennsylvania’s rapidly-growing Black, Latinx, and Asian-American populations will have a greater opportunity to elect candidates that truly represent them over the course of the next ten years.
These communities have represented almost the entirety of population growth in the Commonwealth over the past ten years. Pennsylvania’s Asian population grew by 46% between 2010 and 2020, according to U.S. Census data, and its Hispanic and Latino population grew by 45%. Furthermore, these communities account for 27.5% of Pennsylvania’s total population, and as of 2018 its highest law making body – the General Assembly – was 89% white.
It was disheartening to see House Republicans disingenuously attack commission Chairperson Mark Nordenberg by suggesting, with zero evidence, that he drew these maps to favor Democrats as retaliation against them. Partisanship was not a consideration in the extensive participation of Pennsylvania Voice partners to ensure the LRC prioritized these growing communities and it serves as a distraction to suggest that has been a driving factor in the creation of these new districts.
As Nordenberg himself said of these patently false claims, “Typically, when people resort to arguments of that type, it means that they have little to say about the merits of the dispute,” and “the map itself is a map that favors Republicans. It doesn’t favor them as much as the current map does, but that is a product of the changing demographics.”
We applaud Nordenberg for faithfully serving as a neutral arbiter instead of playing politics with the immense responsibility that was bestowed upon him.
We are nearing the end of this critically important process, but there is still time for Pennsylvanians to make their voices heard to ensure that voters will be able to choose their elected officials, instead of the other way around. The process to submit comments on the proposed maps is open until January 18, and we encourage all Pennsylvanians to do so.
For more than 30 years, Pennsylvania’s legislative maps have unfairly denied the Commonwealth’s BIPOC communities the power to elect the representation to which they are entitled, and we at Pennsylvania Voice, along with our partners, will continue to advocate for the basic fairness that must be the foundation of any true democracy until the very end.
Salewa Ogunmefun is the executive director of PA Voice, a partnership of 44-plus organizations working together to expand power for Black, Indigenous, and communities of color across the commonwealth.
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