WPSU-header-triangles.png
Public Media for Central Pennsylvania
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Fair District PA's chair on what Pennsylvania's new legislative districts mean for elections

Carol Kuniholm sitting in the radio studio in front of a microphone
Anne Danahy
/
WPSU
Fair Districts PA Chair Carol Kuniholm says there is "still work to be done" on the legislative redistricting process in Pennsylvania.

Carol Kuniholm is chair of Fair Districts PA, a nonpartisan organization focused on having a fair, open process for legislative redistricting in Pennsylvania handled by an independent commission. WPSU's Anne Danahy spoke with Kuniholm, who says the recent redistricting process led to better districts, but there's still work to be done.

Anne Danahy 
Carol Kuniholm. Thank you for talking with us.

Carol Kuniholm 
Happy to be here.

Anne Danahy  
We're about to have the first general election since the legislative redistricting following the U.S. Census. Looking at Pennsylvania's state House and Senate maps overall, do you think they're fair? Or is the political gerrymandering still there?

Carol Kuniholm 
I would say they are much more fair. The House map in particular really undoes a lot of gerrymandered districts that had been there for the last decade, some for the last two decades. And the House map in particular is is really much closer to what will represent the people of Pennsylvania well. The Senate map is better. But it's not as much better. It still had districts that were very obviously drawn to keep incumbents in place. Some of that didn't work out so well for the incumbents. But definitely both maps are better. The House map is very, very much better.

Anne Danahy 
Are there still concerns though?

Carol Kuniholm 
Yeah, there's still concerns, because there are still districts that are drawn to keep incumbents in place. And there are still places where, where we look at it — and we had done a people's map, and there was a lot of public input — and there are people who say we still think that people's map was better in spots. But in some ways the House map exceeded ours in terms of providing more opportunity for minority representation.

And I think that the real question is — this really does need to be done in a more public facing way instead of having decisions made behind closed doors. And we want to give a lot of credit to Chairman Mark Nordenberg and his amazing team. We do think that they they brought a great deal more transparency to the process. And they really did engage with the public in ways that were unprecedented in Pennsylvania, in terms of having lots of different voices offer their perspective on what would represent them best. I was impressed with the way they handled so many public hearings. That was that was really terrific. But it's not in law that that happens. Again, they did set a really excellent precedent. But there's no guarantee that the next commission would do it that way. So there's still work to be done.

Anne Danahy 
Looking at central Pennsylvania, a new state House district was created that runs essentially through the middle of Centre County, the 82nd district is considered a swing district, maybe leaning Democratic with registered voters. How unusual is it to have a swing district? And from your perspective, is that a good thing to have these competitive districts?

Oh, absolutely. The more swing districts we can have, the better. And I think those swing districts really energize voters. But we still have a lot of districts where there's only one candidate. And that's just demoralizing. It's like: Why bother, you know? We're not going to be heard, it doesn't matter. And then there are places where there's some valiant efforts going on, but in districts where, you know, short of, you know, an earthquake or something, the the minority candidate can't win. It's really, really wonderful to have districts where voters know that the candidate will matter, the message will matter. And the grassroots engagement will matter. And we're seeing quite a few of those districts in this election. There are, you know, as you mentioned, the District 82, but there are some in the Allegheny County area, there are quite a few in the Philadelphia collar counties. There are some in Lehigh Valley and the Northeast. Even in Erie, there are some districts where a good candidate and a strong grassroots efforts, door-to-door campaigning, can upset what looks like a win for the other party. And we think that is really good for democracy for people to feel like their votes matter. Their grassroots engagement matters. And for candidates to know that they have to respond to voters. When there's a locked-in outcome, candidates simply stop talking to voters and we're seeing that in places across the state and that's really, really harmful to the democratic process.

Anne Danahy 
Carol Kuniholm, thank you for talking with us.

Carol Kuniholm 
Thank you so much.

Anne Danahy is a reporter at WPSU. She was a reporter for nearly 12 years at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, where she earned a number of awards for her coverage of issues including the impact of natural gas development on communities.