By Emily DiCicco
March on Harrisburg was born in a D.C jail cell in April of last year. Well, not quite a jail cell. A warehouse-turned-holding area for the thousand plus protesters that had been arrested at the Capitol building. We, participants of Democracy Spring, a non-partisan movement to get big money out of politics, were arrested at the culmination of a 140-mile march from Philadelphia to D.C. — the final push to force legislators to acknowledge our demands. They didn’t.
During the almost twelve-hour wait to be released, there was plenty of time to reflect on what we had accomplished and what further steps should be taken. At some point, a comrade I met during the march, Michael Pollack — a current student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College — said, with his hands zip-tied behind his back, “We gotta take this to the state level.”
My hands also zip-tied, I nodded my head in agreement. Even with a hundred plus activists embarking on a massive political pilgrimage, even with the most arrests ever made on the Capitol building, even with rallies at Union Station every day for a week, we received less than five minutes of major news coverage and hadn’t met with a single legislator. There had to be a more efficient way to make our country more responsive to the needs of the people.
And that was it. That was the first meeting of March on Harrisburg (MOH).
While working in Italy over the summer of 2016, Pollack organized dozens of Skype calls with activists across the country to include them in MOH’s vision. By the time fall rolled around, Pollack had sketched out a great deal of MOH’s organizational structure and had set up a loose steering committee, which included me, as well as others more experienced in the fight to get big money out of politics, like members from Wolf PAC, such as Alex Shephard and John Randolph.
MOH is a nonpartisan movement, which is run by unpaid volunteers, organizers and activists across Pennsylvania, and is centered on achieving free and fair elections in the state. We are lobbying around three issues: automatic voter registration, ending gerrymandering and instituting a gift ban. These issues were selected because they correlate to legislation that has been previously introduced, but has died in committee.
Addressing these issues would strengthen democracy in Pennsylvania, which ranks seventh worst across the country, according to a recent study on electoral integrity by Harvard and Sydney Universities. Automatic voter registration(AVR), a system of allowing government to use the information that it already has to securely register eligible citizens to vote, would usher the U.S out of a 19th-century voter registration model and into the 21st. Most other democracies use an AVR system, even Iraq, one of the world’s newest democracies. Enacting automatic voter registration would allow more Pennsylvanians to participate in government, like the the two million who are eligible to vote, but not registered. And it’s less expensive than using paper forms — it could save the state over $3 per registered voter.
Just as automatic voter registration creates a more inclusive process for voters, a gift ban would help equalize the voice of voters with lobbyists. Pennsylvania is one of only ten states that does not have any restrictions on what can be “gifted” to a legislator. Paid lobbyists routinely give luxury items — vacations, vehicles, tickets and everything in between — to politicians in the hardly shielded hopes of receiving favorable legislation for their respective industries in return. A gift ban would strengthen trust between legislators and their constituents — most of whom cannot afford or imagine giving these kinds of items to their loved ones, let alone their representatives — and help make the Pennsylvania legislature a more ethical place.
Similarly, ending gerrymandering would help give voters back their voice. Gerrymandering is a process in which legislators are able to select their own voters by allowing incumbents to draw their own congressional and state district lines based on what demographics would support them. Part of the reason Pennsylvania ranked so poorly for electoral integrity is that we have some of the worst gerrymandered districts of any state across the country. For example, check out the 7th Congressional District. Dan Loeb, publisher of The Philadelphia Jewish Voice, says that it “is often listed as one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country. It’s been named ‘Goofy kicking Donald.’”
Pennsylvania Senate Bill 22, recently introduced by State Sens. Lisa Boscola (D-Lehigh/Northampton) and Mario Scavello (R-Monroe/Northampton), would create an independent commission to draw district lines, rather than leave this responsibility to incumbents. Fair Districts PA, a group that has been working on gerrymandering for years, is also advocating for this legislation and has endorsed March on Harrisburg.
To achieve reform in these three areas, we are implementing a three-step plan. First, between now and May 13, we will make contact with every state legislator. Yes, all 50 senators and all 203 representatives. Currently, every other week, organizers and participants travel to Harrisburg for Citizen Lobbying Days, where they sit down with state politicians to talk about the legislation and ask them to co-sponsor our bills. So far, we have made contact with almost 40 legislators. People who would like to get involved in this effort can consult our calendar of Citizen Lobbying Days and training sessions. After training with one of our organizers, individuals can also arrange meetings in district offices.
Citizen Lobbying Days reinforce the mission of MOH by serving as a primer for citizens on how
to participate in our democracy while reducing any intimidation about speaking with politicians. While we do have experienced citizen lobbyists on our team, for some of our organizers, lobbying in Harrisburg is their first political action ever. All are welcome, and we provide legislative and lobbying training for newcomers. Before March on Harrisburg, I could hardly remember my state representative or senator’s name. Now, Rep. Taylor knows my name, and we’ve met on multiple occasions. That’s democracy in action.
However, lobbying is only the beginning. The Citizen Lobbying Days are leading up to the second step in our plan: a political pilgrimage from Philadelphia to Harrisburg. From May 13 – 21, we will march; we will rally; we will chant; we will hold teach-ins across the 110 miles. By the time we arrive in Harrisburg, legislators and staff at the Capitol — who are already starting to recognize members of our team — will know who we are and why we are there. If by that time, legislators have not called a vote on our legislation (cough, cough, House Majority leader Rep. Reed,) participants will engage in step three: direct nonviolent action to force them to call a vote.
Not all participants and organizers need get involved in every element of this action. The beauty of March on Harrisburg is that people can plug in at any level they feel comfortable with. Aside from the three steps, there is much that goes on behind the scenes. There are a dozen subcommittees that individuals can get involved in on topics such as art, media, route and safety and legislation. Join us for 110 miles or five minutes — we want you!
I’ve only been politicized for a short time — a year and some change. But it took only a couple of months of working within the electoral system to realize just how completely broken it is — and a large part of that is because of money. If we can change the way voters participate in government and we can change what donations government can receive, we can create a slightly more democratic system. Then, we might be able to finally push for reform in areas that so desperately need it, such as criminal justice, the environment and education funding. But we need to fix government first.
There hasn’t been a lot to be particularly optimistic about so far in 2017, following a particularly
brutal 2016. It’s easy to feel disenfranchised, powerless and defeated. But March on Harrisburg is a tangible way to get involved and learn how our state government really operates. In this way, we can reconnect government with us — “We the People.”