Reclaiming Our Democracy: Conference Highlights

More than 275 Fair Districts PA volunteers and supporters from across the state converged on Harrisburg last weekend for Reclaiming Our Democracy: The Conference to End Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania.

The October 14 conference was an overwhelming success! Speakers from FDPA and other state and national advocacy and research organizations provided inspiration and education on the redistricting process and its current partisan problems, new gerrymandering standards, and ways to move our state toward a nonpartisan citizens commission.

Conference highlights 

Kathay Feng, the executive director of California Common Cause, described her experience negotiating with state legislators, holding public meetings and forming unusual alliances to bring about reform. Once an independent commission was in place, even though maps continued to be litigated, “our Supreme Court upheld the maps every time” Feng said. “It was a transparent process, the maps were really clean and the involvement of the people was important.”

All PA state legislators were invited to the event, as well as all candidates for governor. House Bill 722 primary sponsor State Rep. Steve Samuelson (D-135th District) came to share his thoughts on the need for reform, and urged attendees to call their individual legislators to vote for the bills and to write letters to the editor and guest columns for local newspapers. He was followed by State Rep. Matt Bradford (D-70th District), minority chair of the House State Government Committee, who said, “It’s really great to see 275 people engaged in an important issue. People are starting to pay attention.”

Mary Isenhour, senior advisor to Governor Tom Wolf’s campaign, noted that Pennsylvania, given its history, should be a leader in democracy—but instead is among the most gerrymandered states in the country. She assured the audience that redistricting reform had the governor’s full support.

Thomas Wolf, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, cited several Supreme Court cases to frame the current debate on gerrymandering reform. “The court has been reluctant to delve into the political thicket because they are fearful of a flood of cases,” Wolf said. “They want to set a general standard to take care of the issue, and they want to decide the issue in a narrow way.”

Ben Geffen, of the Public Interest Law Center, described the current litigation of PA’s congressional districts and explained how the case brought by the League of Women Voters and plaintiffs from every county differs from other past and current lawsuits. The PA Constitution offers stronger protections than the US Constitution and the current case appeals to those protections, making use of a mix of new gerrymandering standards to demonstrate enduring harm.

David Thornburgh and Chris Satullo, of the Committee of Seventy, shared Draw the Lines, a citizen mapping project inspired by Amanda Holt, an amateur district mapmaker who successfully challenged the 2011 redistricting plan. “If we can get everyone to draw maps,” Thornburgh said, “then we can force the state legislature to draw better maps.”

Patrick Beaty, the FDPA legislative director, moderated a conversation that included Kathay Feng, Michael Pollack of March on Harrisburg, conservative media strategist Albert Eisenberg, and Pittsburgh Foundation Director of Advocacy Khalif Ali.

All talked about the need to renew the conversations that are foundational to a functional democracy:

All agreed on the need to tell stories about real people impacted by gerrymandering to make clear the harm to real communities.

Much of the day was livestreamed on our Fair Districts PA Facebook page. Go to our YouTube channel for individual sessions and more. Subscribe to the channel to see them as they’re posted.

Watch videos from the conference