My Voice: A Discussion on Judicial Gerrymandering in PA

Katie S. | Wyomissing Jr./Sr. High School | Grade 11

Image Source: NAACP of Reading

On February 13th, the STAR committee was invited by the NAACP of Reading to discuss judicial gerrymandering. The call was led by Upending Racism Founder Jennifer Hanf, President of the NAACP of Reading Stacy Taylor, and NAACP’s Membership Chair Dionne Stubbs. Guest speakers from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center—Deputy Campaign Director Katy Personette and Organizing Associate Ricardo Almodovar—attended the call to familiarize community members with House Bill 38 and specifically, its debilitating effects regarding how the state elects appellate judges. Members of the call were also pleased to hear from PA State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta who further expounded on the suppression of democracy when politicians gerrymander.

Personette opened the call by defining gerrymandering, when legislators deliberately draw abnormally-shaped congressional districts to favor a specific party and influence an election. She then proceeded to discuss the inherent unfairness seeded within the concept of judicial gerrymandering, giving legislatures the power to carve Pennsylvania into districts that favor their preferred judge or inhibit the election of their least favorite judge, potentially preventing the most qualified candidates from being elected. House Bill 38 would enable lawmakers to indirectly dictate the constitutionality of their own legislation by allowing them to have such a prominent role in elections, undermining the entire foundation of checks and balances. Currently, appellate judges are elected state-wide but if House Bill 38 would advance, Pennsylvanians would only be able to vote for candidates from their district, two or three judges at most. Despite not always being racially-motivated, gerrymandering finds a way to disenfranchise people of color.

Almodovar ended this presentation on gerrymandering by emphasizing a call to action. House Bill 38 is currently not scheduled for a vote but would appear on the ballet in the Spring of 2021 if advanced. Supporting this bill means to support taking the power away from ourselves. As Americans, we cannot simply shake our heads at this absurdity but are encouraged to do what we can to ensure that representatives say no, speaking out through emails, letters, and any method of communication we are limited to amid the pandemic. We cannot merely watch power fall into the hands of those who will abuse it but instead, prevent that power from being wrongly distributed in the first place. Remaining politically-active must become our way of life.

The call closed with a Q&A where members of the community sought to become more educated on American politics as a whole. One member described gerrymandering as a way to “make extremist candidates more electable.” Another voiced the belief that politicians “should win campaigns in fair compact districts based on ideas, not through people predisposed to vote for them.” Lastly, Representative Kenyatta rendered an important message about how concentrated power attempts to “restrict the American promise” by making voting inaccessible to some communities and by “rigging the rules” as a last resort to quiet our voices.

Leaving the meeting as a member of the next generation, I felt overcome with a sense of duty: to speak on behalf of the underrepresented groups in America and to reclaim our democratic rights from those who try to take them away through power-moves like House Bill 38. Over the past few months, I have learned more about systemic racism than I have in my entire life, and I felt honored to be involved in a conversation that explored the policy side of this issue. As I continue to educate myself on the racial inequities in America, I think my next step is familiarizing myself with the policies that are allowing these inequities to exist. With so much work yet to be done and so much left to be learned, the fear and the doubt can become overwhelming at times, but the parting words of Representative Kenyatta continue to echo in the back of my mind. He said that “bravery begets bravery”—and I truly believe that was one of those lines you don’t just forget.