A few years ago, Carol Kuniholm, with her doctorate in literature, worked as a youth pastor in Philadelphia’s suburbs, but the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s unresponsiveness to average voters such as herself inspired a transformation; local media call her a “gerrymander slayer.”
Gerrymandering is a derisive term that describes manipulation of legislative districts to ensure the electoral advantage of two dominant parties, Republican and Democrat. Pennsylvania is divided into 203 House and 50 Senate districts, 18 congressional districts and two U.S. Senate districts.
At Franklin & Marshall College’s virtual Sept. 30 Common Hour, Kuniholm spoke on “The Sad Shape of PA’s Democracy, or Why Redistricting Matters,” and said, “We like to say that your vote is your voice, and there are people who feel their vote is not their voice or their voice is not being heard.”
She cited reports on historic lows in people’s trust in government and that policy makers most listen to organized interest groups. “If you think your voice is not being heard, you’re right,” the activist said. “Your voice is not being heard and you have zero impact on public policy.”
Kuniholm learned in her work with the League of Women Voters that Pennsylvania’s decennial remapping of legislative districts is a mostly self-serving exercise that does not benefit voters, and so she decided to set out and change the 50-year-old process.
She co-founded Fair Districts PA, a LWV project that is non-partisan, volunteer staffed and volunteer led. Its single purpose is to reform how legislative districts are drawn by putting that process into the hands of an independent commission, not partisan legislators.
“When we think of the government who do we think of?” Kuniholm said. “We think of the executive branch most often … but really the legislative branch is supposed to be the branch closest to us as people; most representative of our interests, of our voices; policies of the legislature are the ones that are supposed to represent us.”
A significant reason Pennsylvania voters don’t have a voice in policies and budgets in Washington or Harrisburg is the state’s redistricting commission, which is controlled by legislators who create districts that ensure their party’s incumbents get and keep non-competitive seats; districts are drawn to ensure the maximum number of Republican- or Democratic-registered voters.
Using the U.S. Census count that adjusts for population changes at the end of every decade, the commission decides how to re-map the state’s legislative and congressional districts. Four legislative leaders – the majority and minority leaders in the state House and Senate – form the commission. They choose a fifth member, who is chairman, but if they are unable to agree, a majority on the state’s Supreme Court selects one for them.
As Kuniholm explained, the Pennsylvania Constitution requires districts to “be composed of compact and contiguous territory as nearly equal in population as practicable” and to avoid dividing a “county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward” unless absolutely necessary.
The Fair Districts PA website explains, “The Legislature does not vote on the commission’s plans, and the governor has no power to sign or veto them. This gives party leaders enormous power over the mapping process. In effect, it also lets incumbents draw their own districts—a clear conflict of interest from the start.”
Pennsylvania is one of the worst gerrymandered states in the country, Kuniholm said, and cited one example of that affect: school district funding. The state has one of the worst school equity funding processes in the United States. Affluent school districts get more than twice the amount from the state than do poor districts.
This lack of accountability by the General Assembly is why Fair Districts PA is pushing for future redistricting commissions to be non-partisan and independent, she said.
“It’s not about party so much as it is about people, priorities and policies,” Kuniholm said. “I’m a registered independent. It doesn’t really matter to me which party is winning; what matters to me a lot is what policies they are enacting, and does it work for the people of Pennsylvania.”