Determined to pressure politicians to support three pieces of pro-democracy legislation, scores of activists set off from Philadelphia on Saturday on a 100-mile trek to the Pennsylvania state capitol. Called March on Harrisburg, this action grew out of the Democracy Spring march on Washington, DC last year, which also called for pro-democracy reform and ended with over a 1,000 arrests at the nation's capitol. Many of those involved with March on Harrisburg met through Democracy Spring.
“We literally conceived of this while sitting in a warehouse jail,” says Emmi Dicicco, one of the organizers of the march. “To be effective, we knew we had to take this to the state level, where access to our representatives is much easier. If we can just get in front of these reps, we thought, then maybe we'll have a chance of actually pushing this legislation.”
The three bills under consideration in the state government committee call for automated voter registration, a ban on gifts to politicians, and an end to gerrymandering, which is the process of drawing congressional districts in such a way as to give numeric advantage of one party over another.
“Gerrymandering allows for politicians to choose their voters instead of voters choosing their politicians,” Michael Pollack, a lead organizer of the march, told those at a pre-march rally at Thomas Paine Plaza. “It is the reason Congress has an approval rating usually under 10% and a reelection rating over 90%.”
It is also an issue which has captured a lot of public scrutiny, placing continued pressure on lawmakers to act. March on Harrisburg has organized teams of citizen lobbyists since January to go to the capitol and meet with their representatives, hoping to find allies who will call the bills out of committee and onto the floor for a vote. Putting the bills to vote will place legislators on record with their constituents and force them to make their stance known.
“There is a fear to be on record not supporting this bill on gerrymandering,” says Jonathan Randolph, legislative committee director of March on Harrisburg. “Why would you vote no against democracy? A no vote would hurt their reelection chances.”
Mr. Randolph has trained volunteers for their meetings with state legislators and has devised a rating system from 1 to 5 to gauge each politician's support for the bills, with a 1 indicating no support and a 5 showing willingness to sponsor the bill. Since January, March on Harrisburg has met with all 50 senators and about 180 of the 203 representatives working on the capitol. Their participation in the governing process has allowed them to post their findings on their website so citizens can see where their representatives stand on these bills.
“With gerrymandering, we saw a lot of movement from a 1 ranking to a 5 ranking after our efforts,” says Mr. Randolph. “If everybody in the state woke up and made a call to their reps, we would definitely see pro-democracy change through these bills.”
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And that is why many of the marchers have decided to converge on the capitol, weathering a steady downpour on Saturday to get their demands on the move. Most are tired of the corrupting influence of money in politics. All oppose a pay-to-play system of governance which allows politicians to ignore the will of the people while taking cash and gifts from the corporate powers that subvert democracy. Ranked as the fifth worst state for electoral integrity, Pennsylvania offers a casebook example of what's wrong with our government.
“It is completely legal in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania to give a state legislator anything,” Mr. Pollack said at the pre-march rally. “New cars. The best tickets to events. If you ever want to find a legislator in the fall, look on the sidelines of a Penn State football game. They call these gifts in Harrisburg. But they're bribes”
Like a lot of his fellow marchers, Dave White of Glenside, PA is concerned about how moneyed interests weaken the foundation of democracy. He found March on Harrisburg through friends he met with Wolf PAC, which is a popular organization that demands a government that is accountable to the people. He enjoys the march not only because he has learned a lot about the political process, but also because of the other people he has met through his participation.
“I didn't realize this community exists,” he said while walking through the pouring rain. “I get inspired listening to the other people here and seeing all these groups like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and Democracy Spring come together. The march highlights things about Pennsylvania that I didn't know about, like the gift ban. And gerrymandering – that flies in the face of what democracy is about.”
March on Harrisburg, on the other hand, is what democracy is all about. Participants encourage all citizens to take a few hours per week to contact their representatives or local newspapers and make their voices heard, empowering themselves to institgate the changes they want to see in the world. Entrenched politicians fear an active citizenry that will hold them accountable for their votes, especially when that citizenry marches on their offices and demands meetings.
“This is the civics lesson you never had,” says Ms. Diciccio. “Like Granny D said, democracy is not something you have. It's something you do.”
Once the marchers complete their walk, they will spend four days in Harrisburg petitioning their representatives to call these bills out for a vote. If their representatives fail to act, they are ready to engage in civil disobedience and face arrest. The stakes are too high. Until we get money out of politics, it will be difficult to initiate the system change required for a just and sustainable world. March on Harrisburg plans to keep pushing until we get that change.