Fair Districts PA Draws High Interest, Turnout at First General Body Meeting
The forum room was abuzz, the standing room only audience thronging the aisles and walls of the chamber as they waited eagerly for the meeting to begin. The size of the crowd (well over 100 deep) was highly unusual for the venue, the Centre Region Council of Governments building on the outskirts of State College.
Surprisingly, an assembly of that many local residents wasn’t being mobilized for an upcoming council vote or to protest a controversial new ordinance, but rather to tackle a far deeper and more intractable problem: gerrymandering. They had shown up, many without any prior political involvement, for last Wednesday evening’s first-ever general body meeting of the Centre County chapter of Fair Districts PA.
The organization, a project of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, is a nonpartisan nonprofit founded to lobby for a more democratic redistricting process that would ensure better representation for all constituents. According to the group, Pennsylvania is one of the most heavily gerrymandered states in the nation, and it only continues to trend in the wrong direction.
This isn’t just the case when it comes to the reapportionment of congressional districts — gerrymandering also takes place on the state level, despite being discouraged by the state constitution:
The Commonwealth shall be divided into fifty senatorial and two hundred three representative districts, which shall be composed of compact and contiguous territory as nearly equal in population as practicable. Each senatorial district shall elect one Senator, and each representative district one Representative. Unless absolutely necessary no county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward shall be divided in forming either a senatorial or representative district.
Pennsylvania Constitution, Article II, Section 16
Presently, these guidelines are not seriously heeded during the redistricting process, which takes place every 10 years following the Census.
Centre County (highlighted) is currently subdivided into four separate legislative districts, with State College gerrymandered into the orange District 77 represented by Scott Conklin (D), a ten-year House veteran. Many of his constituents were reassigned as his district shrunk in the most recent round of redistricting in 2012.
Conklin, a self-described “longtime supporter of redistricting,” put in a brief appearance near the outset of Wednesday’s meeting, the only one of the four Centre County-area representatives to show up.
“If you want to drive across my district, don’t. It’s not safe,” he joked, explaining that his constituency was divided into two distinct areas that were only connected by state forest.
One could hear the tiredness in his voice as he recounted how gerrymandering had taken its toll on him, but seeing the size of the turnout seemed to almost rejuvenate him.
“This is the best sight I’ve seen in years,” he said warmly, thanking residents for fighting for a fairer system before taking his absence.
Following Conklin’s departure, the chapter’s overall coordinator, Steve Zarit, opened the meeting with a presentation on the basics of gerrymandering and how Fair Districts was opposing it. He showed several graphics (courtesy of Paveglio) of how State College’s congressional and state senatorial districts had changed over time, drawing scandalized murmurs and absurd laughs from the crowd.
“Voters don’t choose their legislators; legislators choose their voters,” Zarit said, summing up the issue. The statement drew a resounding round of applause from the audience.
Next, the leaders of the three action subcommittees — legislative action, outreach, and writing — pitched their respective teams to attendees before breaking off into different areas of the forum room. Residents excitedly bustled around, some setting up shop in one subcommittee right away while others flitted from group to group trying to find the one that appealed most to them.
“I’m a big fan of silliness,” said outreach coordinator Andrea Harman, a technical communicator at Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory. Her engagement strategy was almost satirical, highlighting the inherent ridiculous of gerrymandering. She suggested games like “pin the border on the district” and “blindfolded gerrymander line walk,” which could be brought to fairs and similar events. Other events and public outreach included a march on April Fools’ Day in Ferguson Township, where three state representative districts met in one place.
Meanwhile, the writing subcommittee planned mostly on lobbying representatives through letters to the editor in local newspapers. “We will be respectful, we will be polite, but we will be insistent,” said coordinator Tim Dunlevy.
After briefly reconvening, the meeting disbanded, but several dozen people stayed behind for a more informal Q&A on the finer points of gerrymandering and a recently introduced General Assembly bill advocating for fair districting.
Executive board members tried to impress the urgency of the situation while also acknowledging that progress would only happen slowly. “We are playing a long game,” Zarit said.
Although the turnout and leadership both leaned Democratic, the group was almost aggressively nonpartisan, making sure to note that the problem occurred on both sides of the aisle. “It’s not about partisanship, it’s about power,” Conklin had noted earlier in the evening.
However, a brief show of hands during the Q&A session found that there was only one registered Republican present, although he made clear that he was strongly opposed to President Trump. Joe Horvath, a Patton Township resident and former Conklin constituent, described himself as a “lurker” who had come along with his wife, although he seemed appreciative of the organization’s goals.
“Looks like a great start,” Horvath said, noting that now it was a “matter of following through.”
Legislative coordinator Pamela Monk echoed that sentiment, stating that now the group had to “figure out the most effective methods of action.”
(Disclosure: The author is currently taking a class taught by Monk, a communications lecturer at Penn State.)
The chapter leadership found several areas for improvement going forward. Harman mentioned that she wanted to bring in more Centre County residents from outside the State College area, while Monk noted that the audience was almost entirely devoid of people of color.
However, the final turnout of 135 still surpassed all their expectations, swelling their total membership to an estimated 200. And more importantly, the atmosphere at the meeting was vibrant as attendees left excited and buzzing, looking forward to taking the next step.
Photo Credit: Adithya Pugazhendhi/The Underground