How Pennsylvania put racial equity into redistricting

know about How Pennsylvania put racial equity into redistricting

The fairness of electoral politics in Pennsylvania and Tennessee is like comparing an anteater to a zebra. Yes, they are both animals but they are more different than the same.

Take Pennsylvania. A five-member redistricting commission (LRC) draws the boundaries of congressional districts within a year of the last U.S. Census. Two of the members are Senate Republican and Democratic leaders and two are House Republican and Democratic leaders. In 2021, those four couldn’t agree on a president, so the Pennsylvania Supreme Court appointed Mark Nordenberg, an academic, as president. He is a Democrat.

The Tennessee General Assembly draws election maps subject to the Governor’s veto. Republicans have a supermajority here, and Governor Bill Lee approved the maps.

The Tennessee Democratic Party sued to redraw them and obtained an injunction. The Tennessee Supreme Court (4-1 Republican) lifted the injunction. The lawsuit is ongoing and could take years. The 2022 elections are a few months away, so for now, the new maps will stick around. They disenfranchise voters of color.

Tennessee law does not require public hearings for redistricting. The House Redistricting Select Committee had 16 members: three Democrats, 12 Republicans, and one independent. The Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Redistricting had seven members, five Republicans, two Democrats.

Tennessee Republicans offered the semblance of justice, but not the essence of it. Just look at the partisan numbers in the decision-making process. The General Assembly did not even debate the Democratic Party maps that were legally drawn while the Republican maps were not. (see https://tntribune.com/senate-republicans-pass-gerrymandered-voting-districts/)

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Imagine a game of baseball between the zebras and the aardvarks. The zebras have 12 players, but the aardvarks have only three. Here’s how the Tennessee General Assembly, Governor Lee and the Tennessee Supreme Court handled the challenge to Republican gerrymandering of the electoral maps. They flouted fair representation for partisan advantage.

What happened in Pennsylvania?

“I’m a little biased, but I will say that Pennsylvania has the best district house maps I’ve ever seen,” said Salewa Ogunmefun, executive director of the Pennsylvania Voice.

It is an association of more than 50 organizations working together to expand the power of communities of color. The coalition registered many voters prior to the 2016 election. They analyzed the results and while voter turnout increased in the districts where they organized, the results were not representative of those voters.

Ogunmefun said they wanted to understand why the minimum wage in Pennsylvania is $7.25 and why education funding varies so much by district. “What we realized is that the disparity in education and the economy really stems from a lack of representation,” he said.

Salewa Ogunmefun is a Nigerian-American social justice strategist with a passion for building political power based on collective liberation. She is executive director of the Pennsylvania Voice.

“To change that dynamic, we needed to step back and look at the redistricting process because our partners were unable to organize for victory on issues because the way our maps were drawn prevented them from doing so.”

The activists collected testimonials from community members that laid the groundwork for their work to create fair electoral maps. “When we started this process, community self-determination was really our ultimate goal,” Ogunmefun said.

The 2020 Census put numbers to electoral districts that did not match the composition of the General Assembly. People of color make up 23.5% percent of the population. Ninety percent of the members of the state legislature are white and 75% are men. “That’s the basis of all these problems,” he said.

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“We were able to add six additional districts in the statehouse that allow people of color to elect candidates who will be more accountable to their communities,” Ogunmefun said.

The coalition focused on the seven counties that experienced the most growth since the last census. The LRC only invited white experts to testify at the first redistricting hearing.

“Our first request was to change that to make sure there were community experts on the commission. We asked them to increase the number of meetings; we asked them to change the time of the hearings.

In fact, they invited us to testify as experts and when they submitted their first versions of the maps, they asked us to come back and testify again what our perspective was based on the maps that they submitted.”

Community experts were able to build a relationship with the Legislative Reassignment Commission (LRC) and develop their credibility with them.

“They looked at us as people in the process who really should be listening as people who were providing information they didn’t have.

If I had to say one thing, I would encourage everyone to start the process at least 6-7 years from now. Start the process of having conversations with members of the community and engage people about what redistricting is and why it matters,” he said.

María del Carmen Gutiérrez is Policy Director for Casa, Pennsylvania’s largest nonprofit service agency for immigrants and Latino communities. CASA advocates for driver’s license for all, tuition equity, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, COVID relief, climate justice, and redistricting.

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CASA was organized in York and Lancaster, but the elected representatives of those districts, Mike Jones and Bret Miller, are white men.

María del Carmen Gutiérrez is Senior Director of Membership for CASA, the largest social services agency for Latino immigrants in Pennsylvania.

“It’s not because our candidates weren’t good enough. It’s because of the consequences of the redistricting process,” Gutiérrez said.

CASA trained organizers who live where they work and speak the language spoken by their Afro-Latino communities: Spanish. “So our work was in Spanish,” he said.

“Our community is not just our neighbors. The places where you go shopping, your church, your children’s school, the park where you go to have fun with your family are also part of your community. That was one of the first lessons we learned.

We made them realize that we were part of something bigger than us as individuals. We have the ability and the opportunity to participate in all processes related to our community making our voices heard. We also teach them how to draw a community map. That was the first action we did,” said Gutiérrez.

They later produced a Unity map. Gutierrez said they personally delivered the maps to the LRC.