OPED: Protect constitutional right to self govern

Mary Barnes
Springfield Township

Conan O’Brien said recently, “In the northeast, one million people are without power because of a blizzard. And in Wisconsin, one million people are without power because of gerrymandering.”

Many states over the last few decades have been severely gerrymandered, with voting districts shamelessly and unfairly drawn. Pennsylvania is the worst of all by some measures and this has effectively disenfranchised many thousands of us.The good news is that it has given birth to an emerging non-partisan groundswell of citizenry across the state as well as the nation. People are fired up to reclaim democracy from the hands of power-corrupted legislators.

Citizens in many states have launched ballot initiatives to circumvent these legislators. The initiatives, if passed, will create independent, non-partisan voting commissions or the like which will draw future districts fairly so every vote counts. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania doesn’t allow the initiative process.

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Several states have already created and enacted some form of the above-mentioned commissions. California’s model is the one most independent of legislators so it’s the one introduced in Pennsylvania’s present Senate Bill 22 and House Bill 722. Again, the bad news: Republican Statehouse leaders have blocked these bills for a year or so. State House Chair Darryl Metcalfe continues to refuse to hold a hearing on HB 722 despite 112 co-sponsors, including 34 Republicans — a majority of the House.

The good news here: Senate State Government Chair Mike Folmer, listening to a barrage of Pennsylvanians, finally agreed to hold a public hearing recently on SB 22. I attended this hearing and found it riveting (this bill, too, has many Democrat and Republican co-sponsors). On that day the chamber was packed with constituents, many more in an overflow auditorium.

Testimonies that were given by the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lisa Boscola, and Dr. Carol Kuniholm, co-founder of the non-partisan group, Fair Districts PA, were deeply informative and cogently laid out the case for districting reform.

Kuniholm told Sen. Richard Alloway the goal of this effort is to keep people’s communities together so that ultimately their votes count and matter. She reminded all of us that the Pennsylvania statehouse belongs to the people, not the leadership of the party in power and because of its theft from gerrymandering we have been thrown into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

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Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, addressing similar gerrymandering in his state, is advocating for a non-partisan redistricting commission there. He points to polling being off the charts, where people of every stripe are asserting that citizens should be able to pick their representatives rather than representatives picking their voters.

Let’s not fool ourselves. These days, sadly, we suffer from profound distrust of each other. This makes something like an independent, non-partisan voting commission even more critical. And, no surprise, both Republican and Democratic operatives are lining up to re-gerrymander in 2021 unless we do something about this.

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Folmer, who appears not quite ready to co-sponsor SB 22, reminded everyone the most potent tool we have is lobbying our own representatives, like him. Kuniholm reminded us that our ultimate tool is our vote. We are, indeed, in a constitutional crisis and we must be informed, animated citizens. In that way citizens will reclaim the constitutional power of self-governance.

— Mary Barnes is a resident of Springfield Township.

Dr. Mary Barnes