Almost a decade before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech titled “Give Us the Ballot” in which he talked about the importance of equal voting rights. In it he said the following:
"So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind — it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact — I can only submit to the edict of others."
With the first election of 2018 quickly approaching (PA18-March 13th) it’s imperative that we’re aware of the obstacles that get thrown in the way of full voter participation. From new and stricter voter ID laws to partisan-configured congressional districts, it’s a multi-front crusade. Challenging gerrymandering in the courts is just one method of attack at our disposal. The war is far from over, but we who support the complete exercise of voting rights regardless of party have just lost one key battle.
Last week, Newark-based District Court Judge John Michael Vazquez (a 2015 Obama appointee who came with a “well-qualified” rating from the ABA and blue-slipped by both New Jersey Democratic senators) announced that a 1986 consent decree with the Republican National Committee (RNC) was allowed to expire on December 1, 2017 and would not be extended. In the 1980’s the RNC was twice charged with violating the Voting Rights Act. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) took the RNC to court, accusing it of disenfranchising tens of thousands of African-American voters. The result was that the RNC agreed to enter into a consent decree, which would prohibit the party from certain tactics being used to suppress the vote. One of the devices being used was so-called “voter-caging”.
If there ever was a double entendre, “voter caging” is one in the most vile sense. Literally it refers to placing or “caging” categories of mail in steel shelves and files. In regard to voter suppression “voter caging” is the practice of sending mass direct mailings to registered voters by non-forwardable mail. Lists of those voters called “caging lists” are then compiled from the returned mail and purged from voter lists. Voters get knocked off the voter rolls because they fail to answer registered mail sent to where they’re not currently living-maybe because they’re in college or in the military! When voters show up at the polls they may be challenged and forced to cast a provisional ballot. If they can show that they recently moved or the address is in error, their vote may be counted. If not-“tough luck”! Voter caging is a way to file law suits in court targeting mass challenges to voters.
Voter caging is nothing new-it’s been happening since the 1950’s. The practice has been declared illegal under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but many state laws have no such prohibition. The RNC has used the practice to target demographic groups they deem favorable to the opposing party. Conducted under voter list maintenance or “ballot security”, voter caging is used to disenfranchise minority voters in large numbers. The RNC was supposed to have stopped the practice in 1986 in accordance with the consent decree case, but it occurred in unprecedented numbers in the 2004 election. For example, during that election 130,000 mailings were sent by the RNC to predominantly minority areas in Philadelphia. The same thing happened in Cleveland, OH that year, where 35, 000 mailing were returned. The RNC then sent “poll watchers” out to challenge those voters right to vote, which brings me to my final point.
The 2018 election is just 10 months away. Without the consent decree, your guess is as good as mine as to what will happen. But one thing people should be concerned about is Trump’s past assertions of millions of people voting illegally and his allegations of voter fraud in cities like Philadelphia. If he and the RNC employ “vigilantes” to start showing up at the polls in the name of “ballot security”, we could again see minorities disenfranchised from the voting process and as Dr. King said, not living as democratic citizens.
Listen to University of California, Irvine elections law expert Rick Hasen discuss the consent decree. Hasen also publishes the Election Law Blog.
posted by Amy Levengood
Last week I wrote about the Trump administration’s directive to the CDC to ban seven specific words from future documents. See Brought to you by the "Ministry of Truth" It seems surreal that we are even having this conversation, but if you’re paying attention you will have noticed the administration’s authoritarian reach has gone far beyond words.
If you haven't been paying attention-not to worry. Someone is doing it for us and her name is Amy Siskind, a writer and Wall Street executive who’s work has focused on the advancement of women and girls. Siskind is co-founder and president of The New Agenda, a national organization working on issues including economic independence and advancement, gender representation and bias, sexual assault and domestic violence.
Shortly after the 2016 election Siskind started a list. “I read a bunch of articles about authoritarianism. They said the changes would happen so quickly that you wouldn’t realize what was happening in front of you unless you took note,” Siskind remembers. Many of the articles she read recommended keeping a record of the “erosion of democratic norms” occurring, so that’s what she did. Siskind began posting her lists on Medium and now posts them weekly on Facebook and Twitter as well. Siskind’s first list contained 9 items. We’re now on #58 and up to 133 items this week alone. In July the Library of Congress began archiving her weekly entries.
Siskind says she’s not looking to catalogue a host of people’s typical complaints about politicians but rather to detail “things that are uncharacteristic of our democracy”, like the Trump campaign’s payouts to his businesses and his attacks on the FBI.
Below are some examples of what Siskind has been compiling:
"The Trump regime closed the Community Resilience Panel for Buildings and Infrastructure Systems, a group created by Obama in 2015 to help local officials protect against extreme weather and natural disasters."
"Intercept reported Trump’s WH is considering set a of proposals developed by Erik Prince and a retired CIA officer to provide the CIA and WH with a global, private spy network that would circumvent official US intelligence."
"On Thursday, the Trump regime rolled back an Obama-era rule which required trains carrying highly explosive liquids to install electronically controlled pneumatic brakes by 2021, to help prevent fiery train wrecks."
"Politico reported while on Air Force One with Trump, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz said the country is at risk of a “coup d’etat” by Mueller. In a phone interview later, Gaetz stopped short of calling for Trump to fire Mueller. (#77 week 57) Later Fox News also used the word “coup” in a chyron."
"On Tuesday, Trump signed $700 billion defense policy bill, while complaining about provisions included by lawmakers to force a more aggressive policy toward Russia. Trump has yet to impose sanctions voted on by lawmakers."
"On Sunday, the Kremlin was the first to share that Putin called Trump to thank him for sharing intelligence which thwarted a terrorist bomb plot in St. Petersburg. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later confirmed the call."
"This was the second time Trump and Putin have spoken in the past three days, and both calls were first made public by Russian sources. Trump’s Oval Office meeting in Week 26 was also reported by Russian sources."
"The WH released an odd readout of the call between Trump and Putin. It is highly unusual for leaders to publicly disclose sharing intelligence information, or to publicly thank each other."
Like many of us, Siskind’s life was turned on end by the 2016 election. She spends about 20 hours a week on compiling her lists and plans to keep it up throughout the Trump era. “We have to have a way to trace back to where we were,” she says, “to trace our way back to democracy.”
posted by Amy Levengood
Did your mother ever threaten to wash your mouth out with soap when you were a kid? I bet it wasn’t because you said diversity, fetus, transgender, vulnerable, entitlement, science-based, or evidence-based.
We’re 11 months into this presidency and words are being banned. On Thursday officials at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were ordered by the Trump administration to cleanse the seven words mentioned above from future budget documents.
A longtime CDC analyst told the Washington Post that when the order came down from the administration, the reaction in the room was “incredulous”. CDC officials were given alternative word options in some cases. For example, instead of using “evidence-based” or “science-based” they may say, “The CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes." The CDC official who spoke to the Post wished to remain anonymous, but said a “growing backlash” should be expected. "Our subject matter experts will not lay down quietly," the official said. "This hasn't trickled down to them yet."
Of course, administration officials are denying the reports. "The assertion that HHS has 'banned words' is a complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process," Health and Human Services spokesperson Matt Lloyd said.
Critics of the administration’s moves have not been shy about voicing their objections. "To pretend and insist that transgender people do not exist, and to allow this lie to infect public health research and prevention is irrational and very dangerous," Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a written statement. "The Trump administration is full of dangerous science deniers who have no business near American public health systems like the CDC," she continued. "They are actually going to kill Americans if they do not stop."
Dana Singiser, vice president of public policy and government affairs for Planned Parenthood called the order “reckless” and “unimaginably dangerous”. "You cannot fight against the Zika virus, or improve women's and fetal health, if you are unable to use the word 'fetus.' You must be able to talk about science and evidence if you are to research cures for infectious diseases such as Ebola," Singiser said. "You must be able to acknowledge the humanity of transgender people in order to address their health care needs. You cannot erase health inequities faced by people of color simply by forbidding the use of the words 'vulnerable' or 'diversity'."
This blatant censorship hasn’t limited itself to seven words. Since Trump took office his administration has raised questions about how to address issues of sexual orientation, gender identity, and abortion rights. According to the Washington Post, Health and Human Services (HHS), Justice, Education, and HUD have all changed some federal policies and how they collect government information about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. HHS has removed information about LGBT individuals from its website. The agency has also removed questions about sexual orientation and gender identity from several surveys of the elderly.
Has the word “authoritarianism” crossed your mind yet? In George Orwell’s novel 1984, "Newspeak" was the official language created by “the Party” to meet the ideological requirements of the totalitarian state. In the appendix to his novel, “Principles of Newspeak”, Orwell explained that Newspeak is “a language characterised by a continually diminishing vocabulary; complete thoughts reduced to simple terms of simplistic meaning”. "The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc (the name of the political regime), but to make all other modes of thought impossible." Sound familiar?
In other words, if we don’t say it, write it, or read it- it doesn’t exist. That’s a slippery slope that leads right down to the kind of censorship, state control of media, and information voids that characterize countries like North Korea and Eritrea. Is that the company we want to keep?
After Thursday's briefing Rush Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, summed it up best, "Here's a word that's still allowed-Ridiculous!"
posted by Amy Levengood
As you can see from the graph below the majority of Americans still get their news from TV. And if you talk to registered voters, 41% will say they trust their local news as opposed to 27% who trust the national news. But what happens when news is no longer news but a propaganda tool of one political party or another? We may be about to find out.
Last month the FCC headed by Ajit Pai, eliminated certain regulations which resulted in a huge gift to one telecommunications company in particular-Sinclair Broadcast Group. Who are they and why should you care?
Sinclair Broadcast Group, headquartered in Hunt Valley, MD, was founded in 1971 by Julian Sinclair Smith and is now run by his family. His son David Smith currently serves as Executive Chairman. By number of stations and total coverage, Sinclair is the largest TV station in the U.S. The company owns and operates 193 stations (233 after pending sales are approved), which translates to 40% of all U.S. households.
Sinclair has been systematically buying up market share since the 1980s, but in March of this year reports began to surface that Sinclair was looking to acquire Chicago-based Tribune Media. Then in May, Sinclair announced it would acquire Tribune for $3.9 billion. Right now Sinclair only has an 11% overlap with Tribune, but if the acquisition is successful Sinclair’s reach within the top-ten viewing markets will expand dramatically. Stations would be added in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Cleveland (giving Sinclair at least one station in almost every Ohio market), and Philadelphia (WPHL-TV). Sinclair would also gain a national cable presence in WGN America and partial interests in the Food Network and This TV.
Other station owners have sought to thwart the acquisition of Tribune, arguing that it would give Sinclair unfair leverage with 21st Century Fox. The problem is Sinclair is already the largest Fox affiliate by station count. With Tribune Media being Fox’s largest affiliate operator by total market reach, the acquisition by Sinclair would create an entity that would reach three out of four American households.
When is she going to get to that “why should you care” part, you ask. If you expect your news to be factual and bias-free, then you should care. Sinclair has repeatedly been criticized for its conservative slant, even by some of its employees. In the past its stations have been known to air politically-motivated coverage and news specials that were favorable to the GOP in the time leading up to an election. Back in 2004, it was revealed that all of Sinclair’s campaign contributions went to Republican candidates. The Center for Public Integrity has also cited former Sinclair executive Mark Hyman for lobbying the FCC to loosen rules on concentration of media ownership. (This is the same Mark Hyman who once compared multi-culturalism and political correctness to a cancer epidemic.)
Here are some more of Sinclair’s claims to fame:
But what should really set your hair on fire is Sinclair’s hiring of Boris Ephsteyn in April as its chief political analyst. Yes-that Boris Ephsteyn-former senior advisor to Trump during the campaign and an assistant communications director in the Trump administration until March when he resigned.
Media advocacy groups like Free Press have been sounding the alarm particularly over Sinclair’s syndicated news content, charging that the group’s practices are weakening local media outlets, which as you could see in the Pew Research Center graph above, traditionally receive higher marks for trustworthiness. One of the most troubling of Sinclair’s practices is the use of “Must-Run segments”, which include pre-packaged news segments that are integrated into local news broadcasts. As PBS NewsHour’s William Brangham reports, “Sinclair mandates that these clearly conservative editorials and features get broadcast on every one of their local stations. In some cases, stations have to run them as often as nine times a week.” So much for local news run by local stations and produced and reported by local people! What viewers are actually getting are Trump surrogates like Boris Ephsteyn pontificating on conservative issues.
Comedian and political commentator John Oliver giving his take on Sinclair.
On October 19th, Tribune Media shareholders approved the acquisition deal. On October 24th, the FCC eliminated a rule that “required broadcast station groups to maintain a physical presence in the community of their primary local coverage areas”, thus assisting Sinclair in its ambitions, which leads me to the most troubling part of the story. Free Press has accused Sinclair of currying favor with the Trump administration. (Jared Kushner stated last December that there was a deal with Sinclair for access to the Trump Campaign in exchange for airing interviews without commentary. The Washington Post has shown that Sinclair gave more broadcast time to favorable coverage of the Trump campaign than to other candidates.) Sinclair executive chair David Smith is said to have had meetings with Ajit Pai prior to his appointment as FCC chair about deregulations that would be favorable to the media group.
The FCC has a five member panel led by Republican Chairman Pai. On November 16th the FCC voted on several actions that would eliminate regulations for local media ownership. The two Democratic commissioners voted against the deregulatory decisions. “We have engaged in a series of media policy changes at this agency that are striking in the one thing that they have in common,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said. “They are all custom-built for a company called Sinclair Broadcasting.”
A few days after the FCC vote, two high-ranking House Democrats asked the FCC’s inspector general to investigate whether Chairman Pai “has taken actions to improperly benefit Sinclair Broadcast Group.” Then on November 22nd, 15 Democratic senators—almost all with a Sinclair-owned or operated station in their state—asked for an investigation of whether Pai’s decisions were meant to benefit Sinclair. (Click here to view the letter.) Pai of course denies this, but the fate of the Sinclair-Tribune Media merger is in his hands with a decision coming in the new year.
In a country where one of the founding principles is freedom of the press, it’s disturbing to see our government making laws that are a direct negation of that promise. It leads one to ask-what is the intent? Hannah Arendt, in a 1974 interview that has an eerie relevance forty odd years later, may have given us the answer:
“The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer… And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”
Stations in PA currently owned by Sinclair
posted by Amy Levengood
I don’t want to say “we told you so” but …we told you so! In the weeks leading up to last Tuesday’s election, Indivisible Berks and other local groups like Berks Progressive Volunteers and Fair Districts Berks tried to impress on voters how important it was to carefully evaluate candidates in judicial races. To their peril, voters (this one included), often don’t give these seats the attention they deserve. Some recent court cases underscore why judicial races are so important.
Take Sallie Mundy for example. Mundy was appointed by Governor Wolf in June of 2016 to fill the PA Supreme Court seat vacated by Michael Eakin, who resigned due to an ethics inquiry. Mundy’s term was due to expire December 31 of this year. To remain in the seat, Mundy was required to stand for partisan election. Tradition has it that interim judges, such as Mundy, don’t run following an appointment. For whatever reason Governor Wolf put tradition aside when appointing Mundy saying she didn’t have to promise not to run. She ran unopposed in the Republican primary and went on to defeat Dwayne Woodruff on November 7th. Her term will last until 2027, and by the way, Mundy was endorsed by the NRA’s Political Victory Fund in 2009.
Why am I harping on this you ask? On Thursday Nov 9, the PA Supreme Court ruled in a suit brought by the Public Interest Law Center on behalf of the League of Women Voters and individuals from each of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional districts.
Here’s what their lawsuit asserts:
“Our lawsuit contends that in 2011 Pennsylvania elected officials manipulated the congressional district boundaries to entrench a majority Republican delegation in Congress and minimize the ability of Democratic voters to elect U.S. House representatives. Filed in the state’s Commonwealth Court, the complaint alleges the current congressional map was designed to pack as many Democratic voters as possible into Pennsylvania’s 1st, 2nd, 13th, 14th and 17th districts. At the same time, the map was designed to spread the remaining Democratic voters among the other 13 districts so that Democratic voters fall short of a majority in each of these 13 districts. The net effect maximizes the number of Pennsylvania congressional seats held by Republicans.”
PA Speaker of the House Mike Turzai (R-28) and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-25) sought to delay the above lawsuit citing ongoing litigation in the U.S. Supreme Court challenging Wisconsin’s gerrymandered districts. (see our post in July: Salamanders and Strange Bedfellows) Turzai and Scarnati argued that since the Wisconsin case was similar, the state level League of Women Voters case should be put on hold until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled. On Thursday, the PA Supreme Court overruled Turzai and Scarnati’s challenge in a 4-3 decision. One of the 3 dissenting votes was cast by none other than Sallie Mundy.
The League of Women Voters suit is only one of two court cases regarding gerrymandering going on at the state level in PA. The second case has to do with Speaker Turzai and Senate President Scarnati who were ordered on November 9 to turn over any communications they or their aides had with REDMAP (Redistricting Majority Project). A federal judge in Philadelphia has given them a week to turn over the communications and any information they used to draw the maps after the 2010 census.
“The federal judge's order said the ‘legislative privilege’ that Scarnati and Turzai had asserted ‘is a qualified privilege that may be pierced and which at a minimum does not shield communications with third parties associated with REDMAP nor protect facts and data considered in connection with redistricting.” She said they must also produce documents from 2009-2012 over which they are not claiming any type of privilege.”
What is REDMAP?
If you're not familiar with REDMAP, it's time you're introduced since REDMAP has been getting very familiar with Pennsylvania. REDMAP or the Redistricting Majority Project is a plan engineered by Karl Rove and others after the 2010 census to redraw electoral maps in key states in order to shift the balance of power to Republican control. Rove very blatantly laid out the plan in a Wall Street Journal column back in 2010. The subheading to Rove’s article read, "He who controls redistricting can control Congress." The plan is working out very well given that Republicans control nearly two-thirds of state legislatures in the U.S. despite losing to Democrats in overall vote tallies.
Below is some language taken directly from REDMAP’s website, which underscores how direct, focused, and frankly undemocratic their efforts have been:
Republicans have an opportunity to create 20-25 new Republican Congressional Districts through the redistricting process over the next five election cycles, solidifying a Republican House majority.
On November 6, 2012, Barack Obama was reelected President of the United States by nearly a three-point margin, winning 332 electoral votes to Mitt Romney’s 206 while garnering nearly 3.5 million more votes. Democrats also celebrated victories in 69 percent of U.S. Senate elections, winning 23 of 33 contests. Farther down-ballot, aggregated numbers show voters pulled the lever for Republicans only 49 percent of the time in congressional races, suggesting that 2012 could have been a repeat of 2008, when voters gave control of the White House and both chambers of Congress to Democrats.
But, as we see today, that was not the case. Instead, Republicans enjoy a 33-seat margin in the U.S. House seated yesterday in the 113th Congress, having endured Democratic successes atop the ticket and over one million more votes cast for Democratic House candidates than Republicans.
However, all components of a successful congressional race, including recruitment, message development and resource allocation, rest on the congressional district lines, and this was an area where Republicans had an unquestioned advantage.
Today, nearly two months after Election Day, and one day after the 113th United States Congress took the Oath of Office on Capitol Hill, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) is releasing this review of its strategy and execution of its efforts in the 2010 election cycle to erect a Republican firewall through the redistricting process that paved the way to Republicans retaining a U.S. House majority in 2012.
Here’s how REDMAP began to execute their plan:
As the 2010 Census approached, the RSLC began planning for the subsequent election cycle, formulating a strategy to keep or win Republican control of state legislatures with the largest impact on congressional redistricting as a result of reapportionment. That effort, the REDistricting MAjority Project (REDMAP), focused critical resources on legislative chambers in states projected to gain or lose congressional seats in 2011 based on Census data.
The rationale was straightforward: Controlling the redistricting process in these states would have the greatest impact on determining how both state legislative and congressional district boundaries would be drawn. Drawing new district lines in states with the most redistricting activity presented the opportunity to solidify conservative policymaking at the state level and maintain a Republican stronghold in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade.
To fund the initiative, the RSLC raised more than $30 million in 2009-2010, and invested $18 million after Labor Day 2010 alone.
The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) spent nearly $1 million in Pennsylvania House races, targeting and winning three of the toughest races in the state. (-1 Congressional seat).
A REDMAP target state, the RSLC spent nearly $1 million in Pennsylvania House races in 2010 – an expenditure that helped provide the GOP with majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Combined with former Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett’s victory in the gubernatorial race, Republicans took control of the state legislative and congressional redistricting process. The impact of this investment at the state level in 2010 is evident when examining the results of the 2012 election: Pennsylvanians reelected a Democratic U.S. Senator by nearly nine points and reelected President Obama by more than five points, but at the same time they added to the Republican ranks in the State House and returned a 13-5 Republican majority to the U.S. House.
REDMAP’s effect on the 2012 election is plain when analyzing the results: Pennsylvanians cast 83,000 more votes for Democratic U.S. House candidates than their Republican opponents, but elected a 13-5 Republican majority to represent them in Washington;
Nationwide, Republicans won 54 percent of the U.S. House seats, along with 58 of 99 state legislative chambers, while winning only 8 of 33 U.S. Senate races and carrying only 47.8 percent of the national presidential vote.
To be fair, Republicans don’t have a corner on the gerrymandering market. Democrats have used similar tactics very effectively in Maryland. But as you can see from REDMAP’s own words, PA is a fertile target within the sights of the Republican Party.
This brings us back to where we started -with the two gerrymandering-related court cases. As Arthur Naylor of Fair Districts Berks reminds us, neither of these court cases alone will change the way districts are created in PA. Naylor said recently, “No matter how the US or PA courts rule, both the congressional and state legislative districts in PA will continue to be determined by the majority party in Harrisburg unless we amend the PA Constitution. SB 22 and HB 722 will fix the problem.” ( SB 22 and HB 722 are two bills which would establish an independent redistricting commission.)
As the saying goes, "Be the change you want to see in the world." It seems the only way things are going to change in Pennsylvania is through the courts, through our continued efforts lobbying our Reps, and through a strong presence at the ballot box.
posted by Amy Levengood
PA's Legislature is planning something special for us at the polls on November 7th. Did you get your invitation? No? Neither did I, but I can assure you that at this party there will be one of those gag gifts your smart ass relatives love to give - a deceivingly big, intricately wrapped package with nothing but air on the inside.
There are many forms of voter suppression. Some are blatant, in-your-face, and racially motivated like Jim Crow laws were in the South. Others are more subtle and insidious. Think of the ad buys on Facebook during last year’s presidential election. In that latter category falls PA’s ballot referendum , namely Joint Resolution 1, on eliminating property tax. ( The resolution moved through the most recent session of the state legislature as HB 1285 sponsored by Berks’ own Rep. David Maloney.)
Joint Resolution 1 as it will appear on the ballot on November 7th is written in the manner of most PA ballot initiatives - in the doublespeak of some character from Alice in Wonderland. Make no mistake - this kind of tactic is a deliberate attempt by proponents of the cause (eliminating property taxes) to confuse and discourage people at the polls. When voters feel like they need to pass the PA bar exam before stepping into the voting booth, one of two things happens. That person either willy-nilly picks their choice or more likely - they just don't vote.
Additionally, extreme right wingers and libertarians have been holding clandestine town halls to get feedback on the plan and to coerce their voters to get out to the polls. (Case in point: Take a look at the agenda for this coming Thursday’s Berks County Patriots’ meeting.) Many of the town halls are being held in inaccessible places with little notice.
Again - guess my invitation got lost in the mail!
This is how the ballot question will read on November 7th, 2017:
Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to permit the General Assembly to enact legislation authorizing local taxing authorities to exclude from taxation up to 100 percent of the assessed value of each homestead property within a local taxing jurisdiction, rather than limit the exclusion to one-half of the median assessed value of all homestead property, which is the existing law?
Did you have trouble understanding that? You’re not alone. Legal jargon is complicated. Homestead? Why didn’t they just say house? Ballotpedia, which gives legislation readability and grade level scores, gave the resolution's title alone a grade level of 30! This is a deliberate attempt to confuse Pennsylvanians. Like I said, that’s considered voter suppression.
What does all this actually mean?
A YES vote would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution, clearing the way for legislators to eliminate property taxes for homeowners. Local taxing authorities―counties, municipalities, and school districts―would be allowed to exempt up to 100 percent of the assessed value of each homestead from taxes, meaning people could pay zero property tax.
Sounds good in theory, but getting rid of property taxes would strip vital funding from school districts, police, and fire companies. The state currently funds more than 40% of any given school district’s budget, so local communities have to make up the rest. Without a way to raise taxes, school districts won’t be able to meet the educational needs of their community. Eliminating the property tax, without a viable plan for replacing that funding, is irresponsible and short sighted.
A NO vote simply opposes the amendment. The amount local taxing authorities can exempt would remain at 50% of the median value of the home (as outlined in a 1997 amendment to the PA Constitution).
Why you should vote NO :
As in most legislation peddled to us by the snake oil salesmen on the right, what you see is not all you are getting. Amending the Pennsylvania Constitution clears the way for dangerous legislation like SB 76 (sponsored by Berks' Sen. David Argall) that is being pushed by the corporate lobby to alleviate their tax burden and shift it to us. This amendment alone doesn’t eliminate property taxes. It is part of a long game strategy to defund public schools and fill the pockets of the already wealthy.
It's going to be quite a party Novebember 7th. If you do get your “invitation” make sure you R.S.V.P. with a big, fat, NO!
by Marc Stier
Originally published at Third and State August 28th, 2017 4:11 PM
Last November we elected a President who reminds many of us of a cranky uncle who sits at the far end of the Thanksgiving or Christmas table, muttering under his breath about the “damn government” and “wasted taxes” and, quite often, “those people who cause all the trouble.” When you try to engage him in discussion, you find that he has a ready – and extremely simplistic – answer to every question, one that is lacking in any detailed understanding of what government actually does and that assumes that “it’s very simple to do x or y” if not for conniving politicians.
Right now, some Republican members of the House of Representatives in Pennsylvania, with the support of outside advocates, are readying a plan to borrow massively, perhaps up to more than $2 billion, from many of the 100 or so special funds that, along with the General Fund, are part of the state budget. Their justification for doing so is that, at the end of each year, many of these funds have a surplus. So it seems easy enough to shift those surpluses – money they are quick to say is “just sitting there not doing anything” – into the General Fund.
Why is this a bad idea? There are two general reasons.
First, raiding special funds to fill the hole in the General Fund can only provide, at best, a one-year fix for the state’s persistent budget deficits. Without new recurring revenues, a deficit will return next year.
And second, money accumulates in the special funds for a number of good reasons. The money raided from these funds almost always must be repaid with interest. Thus, the state budget deficit will get deeper in future years.
Beyond these two general points, the various special funds finish the fiscal year with a surplus for a number of good reasons. You can read about that in detail in our recent paper here. But we can quickly examine them by looking at some specific examples.
Take the Coal and Clay Mine Subsidence Insurance Fund. It receives revenues from premiums paid by policyholders for subsidence insurance and it makes payments to homeowners in mining areas whose homes have been damaged by subsidence. Setting up this fund was meant, among other things, to embrace the conservative principle that the burden for covering subsidence damage should fall on those most at risk for it, not the general public. Like any other insurance program, the fund keeps a balance so that it will have the funds to cover large losses in any year. If the $105 million accumulating in the fund – and earning interest – is used to balance the General Fund budget, monies paid by homeowners for this insurance won’t be available to pay for a major disaster.
Or take the Fish Fund, which receives revenues from fishing licenses and fines and the occasional federal contribution. The state promised to use those license fees to administer state fishing programs and to sustain aquatic life in the state. And, again, by drawing revenue for the fund mostly from those who fish, the general public does not have to pay for programs that benefit a much smaller group. The Fish Fund has a balance at the end of the year of about $60 million in part because expenditures take place in the summer months, early in the fiscal year before receipt of funds for that year. In addition, the costs of these programs vary from year to year depending upon weather and other conditions.
Or take the Growing Greener Bond Fund, which was established to receive $625 million in bond sales authorized by a vote of Pennsylvanians. Those funds are dedicated to various environmental projects such as watershed preservation, mine drainage remediation, flood control projects, brownfield remediation, and improvements in state parks. The fund’s balance is gradually being drawn down and now stands at $21 million, although it was far higher a few years ago. Bond funds like this one often have a high balance initially, as bonds are sold before the projects they are meant to fund are planned and completed. Raiding these funds inappropriately takes money dedicated to one purpose and uses it for another.
Or take the Persian Gulf Conflict Veterans’ Compensation Bond Fund, which was established to distribute funds from a $20 million bond fund approved by the voters of Pennsylvania to compensate Persian Gulf Veterans. If this fund is raided to support the General Fund, money may not be available to Persian Gulf Veterans this year.
Or how about one of the funds with a large end-of-year balance, the Property Tax Relief Fund, which receives revenue from casinos and distributes the money to reduce local property taxes (and wage taxes in Philadelphia). At the start of the fiscal year, it has a balance of almost $500 million. Why shouldn’t that “surplus money” be transferred to the General Fund? Well, the balance is kept so that the fund can makes payments in August and October each year to local governments and school districts before revenues are received from the casinos. If the General Assembly raids this fund to balance the General Fund, payments to local school may be delayed.
And, finally, consider the Public Transportation Trust Fund, which provides dedicated funding for public transportation systems all over the state – not only the big transit systems in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but the smaller ones in 12 other cities. The Public Transportation Trust Fund receives revenues from a portion of Pennsylvania Turnpike Tolls, motor vehicle funds, vehicle code fees, and other sources. And it provides both operating support – that is subsidies to make public transit more affordable – and capital funds for such things as new buses, new transit cars, and track upgrades. Over the course of a year, about $1.5 billion flows into and out of the fund and, at the end of the fiscal year, it keeps a balance of about $250 million. (While the monies for this fund come from drivers, not public transit users, they do benefit because public transit reduces traffic on roads in our major and small cities.)
Why does the Public Transportation Trust Fund need to keep a balance? In part for the same reason as the Property Tax Relief Fund, to ensure that payments can be made early in the fiscal year before receipts come in. And, in part, because the fund pays for large capital projects. What will we tell transportation agencies around the state when a bill comes due for new buses and there is no money to pay for them?
There are many other state funds, most of which are quite small, and many of which are basically just bank accounts to receive and pay out funds for specific purposes. If one were to go through the larger funds one by one, you would find one or another good reason that they keep a positive balance in their account. We’ve seen many of those reasons in reviewing these funds:
To ensure that funds from bond issues or taxes dedicated to specific purposes only goes to those purposes.
While calling these funds part of the “shadow budget” is a nice rhetorical move to convince people that politicians in Harrisburg have done something wrong in creating them, it’s also entirely misleading claim. There is no mystery about these special funds.
The plan to raid the “shadow budget” is based on a false understanding of how the state special funds work. And, more importantly, it is an attempt to do on steroids what Harrisburg has done far too often in the last decade, balance the General Fund budget by borrowing money from these funds.
Our cranky uncles are sometimes entertaining, especially when we are young. Their iconoclasm can be bracing and thought provoking. But as we get older, most of us conclude that they are far too cynical and uniformed to be taken seriously. Their simple solutions are almost always based on false premises and a lack of information. Most of us would never dream of turning our government over to our cranky, blustering, know-nothing uncles.
It sometimes seems to both Democrats and Republicans that we did that in electing the current president of the United States. And that’s one more good reason to be cautious in turning over our state budget to cranky Uncle Mike Turzai and his simple-minded solution for our current budget crisis.
Read the full policy brief here.
The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The Fourteenth Amendment makes this prohibition applicable to state governments. But it seems some PA legislators want people to pay for one of those guaranteed rights-the right to assemble peaceably. SB 754, introduced by Republican Senator Scott Martin and six other Republicans on August 16th, would force protesters to pay police overtime and other fees associated with rallies. Below is an excerpt from the bill:
“A person is responsible for public safety response costs incurred by a State agency or political subdivision as a result of the State agency’s or political subdivision’s response to a demonstration if, in connection with the demonstration, the person is convicted of a felony or misdemeanor offense. In addition to any other right of action and any other remedy provided by law, a State agency or political subdivision that incurs costs in responding to a demonstration may bring an action against a person described in section 4 to recover the response costs and related legal, administrative and court expenses. All costs owed may be determined by a court of competent jurisdiction.”
The proposed bill has drawn criticism on all sides. Legislative Director of the ACLU of PA Liz Randol says the law would infringe upon a person’s constitutional rights and would serve to depress turnout during rallies. (Which I would posit is exactly its intent.) “People can be fined and charged, liable for costs associated with a particular crime they committed. That’s normal,” Randol noted. “What’s different is that it expands it … to allow the government entity, like say, a state or it could be the National Guard, it could be the police department, to determine, to leave it up to them as to whether or not they want to attempt to recover additional costs that are associated with the protest but that are not necessarily related to the specific crime that the individual was convicted of.”
Democratic nominee for District Attorney Larry Krasner put out a statement saying, “Of all the activities to single out, who would pick out speech and protest for extraordinary punishment? It’s what this country was built on. This sort of legislation has no place in our democracy.” Republican DA candidate Beth Grossman also expressed skepticism about the bill and questioned which agency would seek the fees and how they would be assigned to individual convicted protesters. “Are you going to seek the entire amount against one person?” Grossman said. “I see a lot of challenges and problems down the line for that.”
Language in SB 754 shows that it was most likely inspired by anti-pipeline protests. The bill includes extensive details regarding costs associated with demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, citing specific figures, such as the “331,721 hours of response support” by police and the National Guard. It should be noted that Senator Martin represents the 13th District encompassing Lancaster County, which has become a hotbed of protest activity due to the Atlantic Sunrise and Mariner 2 East pipelines. Martin is known to have close ties to pipeline lobbyists and once worked for a lobbying firm representing fossil fuel giants such as Gulf Oil and Sunoco Logistics. (Sunoco Logistics is currently working on the Mariner 2 East.)
SB 754 proposed by Senator Martin is obviously born out of special interest and aimed at suppressing the voices of concerned citizens like you and me. But protesters take heart. Erica Mines of the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice says she expects such regulations to embolden protesters. “In the last couple years”, she said, “No protesters involved with REAL Justice who’d been arrested had actually been convicted.
Senator Martin may be one of those who suffer from the delusion that protesters are paid. I guess if you’re speaking on behalf of the fossil fuel industry that may be true. But if you’re simply exercising your rights as a citizen without a wealthy PAC or hefty campaign contribution, it looks like Senator Martin wants you to open up your wallet.
posted by Amy Levengood
photo source: Alternet
Warning: You may want to pour yourself a tall one or play some soothing music while reading this. If you haven’t heard about ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), it’s time you’re introduced!
What it is: ALEC is a non-profit organization made up of private sector individuals and conservative state-level legislators who collaborate on and draft model bills to be sent to state legislatures. Approximately 200 of its model bills become law each year. ALEC describes itself as the “largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism”.
ALEC’s History: ALEC was initially founded in Chicago in 1973 as the Conservative Caucus of State Legislators in an attempt to fight the EPA and wage and price controls. Its co-founder, Paul Weyrich, also co-founded the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. The organization was renamed ALEC because the word “conservative” was thought to be unpopular at the time. (Imagine that!) Early members included Scott Walker, John Boehner, John Kasich, Jesse Helms, Henry Hyde, Eric Cantor, Tommy Thompson, and Jack Kemp. By 2011 ALEC had 2,000 legislative members nationwide, a number which included 25% of all legislators. At the time, approximately 1,000 bills based on ALEC language were being introduced in state legislatures every year, with about 20% of those bills being enacted. The majority of ALEC members are Republican, and in 2013 100% of legislators in Iowa and SD were ALEC members. (I urge you to scroll through the Leadership section on ALEC’s website. It’s a sea of white.) Included in its alumni list are our own PA Representatives Charlie Dent and Lloyd Smucker. In 2003, Donald Ray Kennard, then a Louisiana state representative and ALEC national chairman, was quoted as saying, "We are a very, very conservative organization... We're just espousing what we really believe in."
ALEC in the news: ALEC has been cited as giving corporations outsized influence on legislation. It’s well known for its strong ties to the Koch Brothers. In July 2011, The Nation magazine published a series of articles in collaboration with the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) that showcased some of ALEC’s model bills and described ties to the Koch family. The CMD launched a website, ALEC Exposed, that documented more than 800 of ALEC model bills, the legislators and corporations that had helped to draft them, and the states that enacted them. (You can view a list of affiliated PA legislators here.) These articles and in particular their coverage of ALEC's push for tough voter ID laws, prompted the advocacy group Color of Change to launch a public campaign to pressure corporations to withdraw their ALEC memberships.
In 2012 ALEC was the subject of an Occupy movement protest, an IRS complaint by Common Cause, and calls for attorney general investigations in several states. Also in 2012, the shooting of Trayvon Martin led to an increased focus on “Stand-Your-Ground gun laws that ALEC supported. In April of that year, Color of Change launched a new campaign to pressure ALEC corporate members to withdraw. More than sixty corporations and foundations, including Coca-Cola, Wendy's, Kraft Foods, McDonald's, Amazon.com, General Electric, Apple, Procter & Gamble, Walmart, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield dropped support of ALEC along with 34 legislative members. In 2014, several technology-oriented companies such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Ebay,Uber, Lyft, and Yahoo! ended their ties to ALEC. Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt remarked that ALEC was "just literally lying" about global climate change. Occidental Petroleum and Northrop Grumman also cut ties with ALEC, along with T-Mobile and BP in 2015.
Although ALEC originally focused on social issues such as opposing abortion, in recent years the group has focused more on business and regulatory matters. According to John Nichols of The Nation, ALEC's agenda "seems to be dictated at almost every turn by multinational corporations. It's to clear the way for lower taxes, less regulation, a lot of protection against lawsuits, [and] ALEC is very, very active in [the] opening up of areas via privatization for corporations to make more money, particularly in places you might not usually expect like public education."
How ALEC works: ALEC now has 10 task forces that generate the model bills that its legislative members may customize. Private sector members have veto power over the bills. Bills must be approved by ALEC’s board of directors, which is composed entirely of legislators, before they can become model bills. There is also a Private Enterprise Advisory Council-its members include AT&T, Exxon Mobile, Pfizer, Koch Industries, and State Farm Insurance.
Some of ALEC’s Notable Actions
Apartheid: In the 1980s ALEC opposed divestment in South Africa, which was aimed at putting pressure on the government to end apartheid.
Homosexuality: In 1985 ALEC published a memo saying homosexuality was a conscious choice and that pedophilia was “a dominant practice within the homosexual world”
Gun Laws: Stand-Your -Ground gun laws expanded to 30 states due to the influence of ALEC.
Voter ID Laws: Voter identification bills introduced in 34 states would have made voting more difficult for students, the elderly, and the poor.
Immigration: The "Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act", an Arizona law known as "SB 1070", is an ALEC model bill. Enacted in 2010, SB 1070 was described as the toughest illegal immigration law in the U.S. Bills similar to SB 1070 were passed in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, and Utah, and have been introduced in 17 other states.
The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act: classifies certain acts of civil disobedience by environmental and animal rights activists as terrorism. Since it was drafted in 2003, this model bill has appeared across the U.S. in various forms. The federal "Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act" has many similarities and language almost verbatim to ALEC's model "Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act". The Senate version of the "Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act" was sponsored by Senator James Inhofe, a long-time member of ALEC. In the same vein, ALEC's model "Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act" would make it against the law to film, videotape, or take photographs on livestock farms in order to "defame the facility or its owner". People found to be in violation would be put in a "terrorist registry"
Privatizing prisons and longer, tougher sentences: Two of the largest for-profit prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut Corrections have been contributors to ALEC. ALEC has a history of supporting "tough on crime" laws and "3 strikes" laws.
Energy and Environment: Since the 1990s ALEC has made a major push for deregulation of the energy industry. ALEC has called plans by the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, a "train wreck" that would harm the economy and has supported efforts by various states to withdraw from regional climate change compacts. One of ALEC’s model bills called on the government to approve the Keystone XL pipeline project. In 2013, ALEC planned legislation that would weaken state clean energy regulations and penalize homeowners who install their own solar panels and redistribute the electricity back into the grid. ALEC described such homeowners as "free riders" because "they do not pay for the infrastructure costs of recirculating their generated power." ALEC has also challenged that global warming is due to human influence.
Telecommunications and information technology: Here’s one particular example of ALEC's influence in this sphere. In February 2014, Kansas introduced SB 304, "prohibiting cities and counties from building public broadband networks and providing internet service to businesses and citizens". There was an "underserved area" exemption for public wi-fi in the bill, but the exemption criterion was not met anywhere in Kansas. (The bill failed.)
Healthcare: ALEC opposes the individual mandate under the ACA. In 2011 ALEC published the "State Legislators Guide to Repealing ObamaCare", which has served as a road map for repeal efforts. ALEC also drafted a variety of model bills designed to block implementation of the law.
Education: ALEC has worked to privatize education. In fact, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos addressed ALEC’s 44th Annual Meeting in July, where she discussed “educational choice”.
ALEC’s MO: Lack of transparency, meetings held in private, and blocking press access are all part of ALEC’s way of doing business. ALEC does not disclose its membership list or the origins of its model bills. ALEC-drafted bills are often proposed by lawmakers in their states without disclosing ALEC authorship. For example, The Star-Ledger analyzed more than 100 bills and regulations previously proposed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and found a pattern of similarities with ALEC model bills that was "too strong to be accidental". The connections were based "not on similarity of broad ideas, but on specific numbers, time frames, benchmarks and language."
The Guardian has described ALEC as "a dating agency for Republican state legislators and big corporations, bringing them together to frame right-wing legislative agendas in the form of 'model bills.” Chris Taylor, a Democratic Wisconsin state assemblywoman who attended an ALEC conference in 2013, described it as a "well-oiled machine" and said, "In my observation, it was the corporations and the right-wing think tanks driving the agendas. Corporations have as big a say as the legislators in the model legislation that is adopted.”
In April 2012, Common Cause filed a complaint with the IRS objecting to ALEC's status as a nonprofit organization, alleging that lobbying accounted for more than 60% of its expenditures. ALEC has formally denied lobbying. Colorado, South Carolina, and Indiana have laws exempting ALEC, specifically by name, from having to register as a lobbyist and report lobbying expenditures. In 2013 ALEC created a 501(c)(4) organization called the "Jeffersonian Project" that, according to The Guardian, "would allow ALEC to be far more overt in its lobbying activities than its current charitable status as a 501(c)(3)."
As of 2011, corporations, think tanks, and trade group members accounted for almost 99% of ALEC's $7 million budget. Legislators pay $100 for a two-year membership, while non-legislators pay $7,000 to $25,000 to join, and more to participate in the task forces. In 2010, NPR reported that tax records showed that corporations had collectively paid as much as $6 million a year to ALEC. The council's total revenue in 2011 was $9 million.
ALEC claims on its website, “All Americans deserve an efficient, effective and accountable government that puts the people in control.” But if you don’t know that it’s corporations, conservative think tanks, and right wing politicians that control policy in the U.S., then you don’t know ALEC!
And now ALEC has set its sights on our Constitution!
photo: BrainPOP Educators
There are two processes by which the U.S. Constitution can be amended: Congress can propose amendments OR two-thirds of state legislatures can call for a convention to propose amendments. Let’s do some math. There are 50 states. The two-thirds needed rounded up would be 34 out of the 50. Currently 32 out of 50 state legislatures are under Republican control. You’ve already read how ALEC operates. Pushing right-wing model legislation through to law doesn’t seem to have whetted its appetite. ALEC has long salivated at the idea of a second Constitutional Convention or a “Con Con” to rewrite the Constitution in order to align it with its conservative world view. The number 32 has led ALEC to believe that that dream is closer to being realized. But as with every happy family, there appears to be some discord within the group. Read about it in detail in, “Infighting, Legal Questions Slow ALEC Push for Second Constitutional Convention” by Mary Bottari.
posted by Amy Levengood
An 1812 political cartoon satirizing the bizarre shape of legislative districts in MA after Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill redrawing them in favor of his own political party. photo courtesy Fair Districts PA
In an ironic twist of history, Elbridge Gerry, fifth vice president of the United States under James Madison, was at one time opposed to the very idea of political parties. But in 1812 prior to his becoming vice president and while governor of Massachusetts, Gerry signed a bill that redrew Massachusetts state senate election districts to benefit his party and that when mapped vaguely resembled a salamander; hence the portmanteau and practice of gerrymandering or designing legislative districts to be favorable to one party or another.
Fast forward a few centuries. Polarization and partisanship are more rampant now than perhaps at any time in American history. But gerrymandering is bipartisan, and it’s alive and well. Not only is it alive and well, it’s thriving-thriving because it works. Elections in the modern era are essentially "rigged" because districts’ boundaries are manipulated to favor one party over the other.
Take, for example, our national elections over the past five years. The series of charts below show how, because of the way legislative districts are drawn, Republicans are winning a far larger percentage of seats in comparison to their margins in actual voting.
Because of gerrymandering, percentages of seats won are not in line with the actual vote. The graph above shows that even though House Democrats won more votes in 2012 by a 1.3% margin, Republicans gained 34 seats.
The charts below show similar results.
While gerrymandering is prevalent across the country, Wisconsin is currently in the national spotlight. The situation in Wisconsin is particularly egregious because of how aggressive the redistricting efforts have been there. Wisconsin is a battleground state, with races often won by only a few percentage points. But you wouldn’t know that by looking only at the number of seats gained. In 2012, Republicans took 60 of the 99 seats in the Wisconsin Assembly with only 48.6% of the vote; in 2014, they won 63 seats with only 52% of the vote statewide. According to the Brennan Center for Justice this is an odd outcome in a state like Wisconsin, “where statewide elections are very close, and voters for both major parties are fairly evenly spread across the state. Voters in Wisconsin, like voters in battleground states in general, are not starkly clustered by party. For example, there are substantial pockets of Democratic voters in places like Vernon County and other rural and small towns, where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton nearly evenly split the vote. The fact that Wisconsin’s Legislature doesn’t reflect this political diversity is, in large part, intentional.
"The same sort of aggressive gerrymandering has distorted the U.S. Congress as well. These 'extreme maps' account for 16 to 17 Republican seats in the current Congress, a sizable portion of the 24 seats Democrats would need to take back the House.”
The circumstances in Wisconsin have taken us all the way to the steps of the Supreme Court. In October, for the first time in a decade, the highest court in the land will look at partisan gerrymandering when it takes up Gill v. Whitford, a case in which voters are challenging Wisconsin’s state assembly map as unconstitutional. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently said Gill v. Whitford may be the “most important” case the justices will hear next term. The case is so significant because SCOTUS has never set a standard for when gerrymandering is unconstitutional. Last year a panel of federal judges ruled Wisconsin’s redrawing of the map as violating the Constitution. If the Supreme Court upholds the ruling of the lower court, it could limit political parties’ ability to redraw electoral maps in their favor when redistricting takes place again after the 2020 Census.
Let's take a look at our own state. If gerrymandering had a poster child, Pennsylvania would be it. In fact PA’s 7th which encompasses part of Berks is often cited as the best, or depending on how you view it, worst example of district rigging in the country. When looking at constructing electoral maps in PA, it's important to clearly distinguish between congressional and legislative districts. Arthur Naylor of Fair Districts PA tells us why:
"They are not determined in the same manner. Currently, congressional districts in Pennsylvania are determined by normal legislative process in Harrisburg. The congressional district maps are proposed by the majority leadership in Harrisburg, which means that whatever works for the party leadership is the guiding principle in determining congressional districts. The legislative districts are determined by a five member commission appointed by the majority and minority leadership in Harrisburg. In 2021, Democrats will have the opportunity to rig the map ... but only for legislative districts. This is because the fifth member of the commission that determines legislative districts is appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which is now largely Democratic.
Gerrymandering puts communities into different districts. For example, the Wyomissing Borough is divided between Costello (largely Chester County) and Smucker (largely Lancaster County). The city of Reading is part of the same district that includes part of Wyomissing and most of Lancaster County, while the rest of Berks county is divided between three other congressional representatives whose main focus is outside the county. As a whole, Berks County has no real voice or representation in Congress. For the same reasons, gerrymandering diminishes the voice of local businesses and local infrastructure needs."
Naylor points out that "the bills that would fix this in Pennsylvania currently sit in the State Government committees of each chamber of the General Assembly in Harrisburg. SB22 and HB722 would put both congressional and legislative redistricting in the hands of an independent commission, one that would not be able to gerrymander districts to favor any party."
"We need to let the people decide, not the politicians. And first, we need to let the people decide whether to have an independent commission for redistricting ... and four-fifths of Pennsylvanians in fact favor this. We need to move these bills out of committee. We need to do so, now, so that the people of Pennsylvania can decide", says Naylor.
Back to Elbridge Gerry. Why should an arcane concept born in the 19th century from a funny name matter to you and me? Look for the answer to that question and for proof of the axiom “politics makes strange bedfellows” no further than the great state of California (pronounced Cal-lee-for-nee-ah). Yes, I am referring to Mr. Universe/Terminator/Kindergarten Cop himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. While the Gubernator is not usually one I gravitate toward as my political guru, I was surprised to hear his very cogent argument in a recent interview as to why he’s joined the fight to end gerrymandering. The interviewer asked Mr. Schwarzenegger very bluntly, “How do you make this sexy? How do you make this appealing, the sort of thing people want to talk about?” His response was pedestrian but at the same time pragmatic “The system is fixed. When there is no competition it takes away from performance. Politicians are picking the voters when the voters are supposed to be picking the politicians.”
Though I'm loath to admit it, Arnold’s right. Yes, the politicians are picking the voters but they seldom seem to be picking you or me.
posted by Amy Levengood