On April 12, the College hosted an Enough is Enough panel discussion to celebrate the right to vote and shine a light on gerrymandering, an issue that threatens the fairness of our electoral system on local, state and federal levels.
Hosted by Dr. Generals, Community College of Philadelphia’s president, the event allowed experts from our College community and beyond to discuss the repercussions of gerrymandering and shine a light on current efforts to correct the systemic flaws in our democracy that allow this unfair practice to take root.
The College was honored to have Laura Coates, senior legal analyst at CNN, as a moderator for the event. Coates made fundamental contributions to the coverage of the unrest in Minneapolis and the protests around the world following George Floyd's death. A well-respected attorney, commentator, author and educator, she served as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice during the Bush and Obama administrations, specializing in the enforcement of voting rights throughout the country.
She was joined by Carol Kuniholm, co-founder and chair of Fair Districts PA; Ricardo Almodovar, PA state coordinator of the Campus Vote Project/Fair Elections Center; Gary Mullin, associate professor of Political Science at Community College of Philadelphia; and Omar Sabir, City Commissioner in Philadelphia.
To begin the discussion, Mullin explained what exactly gerrymandering entails. States are comprised of voting districts, which are geographical areas that share a representative or representatives in the local, state and federal legislature. Every ten years, states redraw the boundaries of their congressional and state legislative districts after the census. But because most states allow elected officials to draw these districts, the boundaries can be manipulated to include or exclude populations that are most advantageous for re-election or other agendas.
“If you want to know where gerrymandering is most prevalent, you would look at state legislatures...these districts are supposed to be roughly equal in population, in fact, plus or minus one percent. But they were never [required] to be of a particular shape, although the ideal district is what we call compact and contiguous,” Mullin explained.
Gerrymandering can present a huge issue for minority populations who wish to have their interests represented by lawmakers. Still, the panelists all agreed that high voter turnouts can be crucial in having the interests of different groups be represented on local and state levels.
Commissioner Sabir emphasized that the discussion about gerrymandering is nuanced and needs to be addressed as such. When we don’t couple conversations about voter suppression with an emphasis on the positive effects of voter turnout, people can feel disempowered and discouraged from voting, or fall to the incorrect assumption that their vote doesn’t count. “People come up with these different policies [like gerrymandering] and maybe it could change five to 10 percent of the vote [in some areas], but at the end of the day, if you're bringing out younger voters and voters, particularly of color, because a lot of them don’t participate in off-year elections, that is what balances everything out,” said Sabir.
“It's interesting you say that, because I always find when people are talking about these issues, there [are] some things that some people shut off. They think law, they think politics and they think inaccessible, this is not meant for me,” Coates concurred. “Which is why the work you're doing, Ricardo, is so important because you are speaking about the ideas of how to galvanize.”
Ricardo Almodovar explained how at the campus vote program works with students in more than 30 college campuses in the state of Pennsylvania to help local campus communities register to vote and learn more about election law and voting terminology. “Organizations like Pennsylvania Voice, Fair Districts PA, and also at the Campus Vote Project—we've been working to engage residents, not just students, through community mapping workshops, public forums and testimony training. And we urge the LRC to create fair districts and fair maps that reflect the changing demographics of our Commonwealth and to respect communities of interest.”
One recent law that has helped to lessen the barriers to voting was Act 77, which allowed anyone in Pennsylvania to vote by mail without needing to provide a reason, Commissioner Sabir explained, calling the law “the great equalizer.” This means that people no longer need to take off work or be physically present at a polling location to cast their vote. "If you come to our County Board of Elections, if you're unregistered, you could walk in, get registered, go ahead and have yourself a coffee, come back and then you can cast your vote once you have data in the system.”
Last, Kuniholm talked about some current efforts by Fair Districts PA to mitigate gerrymandering in our state. "We are working to get an independent citizen redistricting commission in place. And we have had, at one point, 110 House co-sponsors and I believe 24 or 25 Senate co-sponsors, so there are legislators who would like to fix it. You can find out more at fairdistricts.com, and pay attention and please, please vote.”
At Community College of Philadelphia one thing became clear with the most recent iteration of the Enough is Enough series, although there have historically been systems in place to prevent minority groups from being represented in state and local government, there are a lot of efforts in motion to end voter suppression. With the future now looking brighter than ever, by working together with our local communities to encourage voter turnout, we can see that our democratic outcomes are changed for the better.
To learn more about the Enough is Enough initiative at the College visit ccp.edu/Enough