The fairness of electoral politics in Pennsylvania and Tennessee is like comparing an aardvark with a zebra. Yes, they are both animals but they are more different than alike.

Take Pennsylvania. A five-member reapportionment commission (LRC) draws election district boundaries within a year of the latest U.S. Census. Two of the members are the Senate Republican and Democratic leaders and two are the House Republican and Democratic House leaders. In 2021 those four couldn’t agree on a chairman, so the Pennsylvania Supreme Court appointed Chairman Mark Nordenberg, an academic. He is a Democrat.

The Tennessee General Assembly draws election maps subject to veto by the Governor. Republicans have a supermajority majority here and Governor Bill Lee approved the maps.

The Tennessee Democratic Party sued to redraw them and got an injunction. The Tennessee Supreme Court (4-1 Republican) lifted the injunction. The lawsuit is ongoing and could take years. The 2022 Election is a few months away, so for now the new maps will stand. They disenfranchise voters of color.

Tennessee law does not require public hearings for redistricting. The House Select Redistricting Committee had 16 members––three Democrats, 12 Republicans, and one Independent. The Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Redistricting had seven members, five Republicans, two Democrats.

Tennessee Republicans served up the appearance of fairness but not the substance of it. Just look at the partisan numbers in the decision-making process. The General Assembly didn’t even debate the Democratic Party’s maps that were legally drawn while the Republican maps were not. (see https://tntribune.com/senate-republicans-pass-gerrymandered-voting-districts/)

Imagine a baseball game between the Zebras and Aardvarks. The Zebras field 12 players but Aardvarks only three. That’s how the Tennessee General Assembly, Governor Lee, and the Tennessee Supreme Court handled the challenge to the Republican gerrymandering of election maps. They made a mockery of fair representation for partisan advantage.

What Happened in Pennsylvania?

“I’m a little bit biased but I will say Pennsylvania has the best district house maps of any I have seen,” said Salewa Ogunmefun, Executive Director of Pennsylvania Voice.

It is a partnership of 50+ organizations working together to expand power for communities of color. The coalition registered a lot of voters before the 2016 Election. They analyzed the results and although voter participation increased in the districts where they organized, the results were not representative of those voters.

Ogunmefun said they wanted to understand why the minimum wage in PA is $7.25 and why education funding varied so widely by district. “What we realized is that the disparity in education and economics really stems from the lack of representation,” she said.

Salewa Ogunmefun is a Nigerian-American social justice strategist with a passion for building political power grounded in collective liberation. She is Executive Director of Pennsylvania Voice.

“In order to change that dynamic we needed to take a step back and actually look at the redistricting process because our partners weren’t able to organize for victory on the issues because they were prevented by the way our maps were actually drawn.”

Activists collected testimonies from community members that laid the foundation of their work to create fair election maps. “When we started this process, community self-determination was really what our end goal was,” Ogunmefun said.

The 2020 Census put numbers to the election districts that didn’t match up with the makeup of the General Assembly. People of color make up 23.5% percent of the population. Ninety percent of the members of the state legislature are white and 75% are men. “That is the foundation for all of these problems,” she said.

“We were able to add an additional six districts in the statehouse that allow for people of color to actually elect candidates that are going to be more accountable to their communities,” Ogunmefun said.

The coalition focused on the seven counties that experienced the largest growth since the last census. The LRC only invited white experts to testify at the first redistricting hearing.

“Our first ask was to change that to make sure there were experts from the community to the commission. We asked them to increase the number of meetings; we asked them to change the time of the hearings.

They actually invited us to testify as experts and when they introduced their first versions of the maps, they asked us to come back and testify again to what our perspective was based on the maps that they submitted.”

Community experts were able to create a relationship with the Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC) and build their credibility with them.

“They looked at us as people in the process who they should actually listen to as people who were providing information that they did not have.

If I had to say one thing I would encourage everyone to start the process at least 6-7 years out. Start the process in having conversations with community members and engage folks on what redistricting is and why it is important,” she said.

Maria del Carmen Gutierrez is Policy Director at Casa, Pennsylvania’s largest non-profit service agency for immigrants and Latino communities. CASA advocates for drivers license for all, tuition equity, raising the minimum wage to $15/hr, COVID assistance, climate justice, and redistricting.

CASA organized in York and Lancaster but the elected representatives from those districts, Mike Jones and Bret Miller, are both White men.

Maria del Carmen Gutierrez is Senior Director of Membership for CASA, Pennsylvania’s largest social service agency for Latino immigrants.

“It is not because our candidates were not good enough. It is because of the consequences of the redistricting process,” Gutierrez said.

CASA trained organizers who live where they work and speak the language that their Afro-Latino communities speak—Spanish. “So our work was in Spanish,” she said.

“Our community is not only our neighbors. The places where you go shopping, your church, your kids’ school, the park where you go to have a great time with your family are also part of your community. That was one of the first lessons we learned.

We made them realize that we were part of something bigger than we are as individuals. We have the ability and opportunity to participate in every process dealing with our community making our voices heard. In addition we taught them how to draw a community map. That was the first action that we did,” Gutierrez said.

Later they produced a Unity map. Gutierrez said they delivered the maps personally to the LRC.

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