Politics & Elections

Rhode Island begins the process of redistricting

“We’re going to great lengths to ensure that this process is a transparent one,” said Senate Chair Steven Archambault. “Not only are these meetings open, they’re broadcast and archived. Even the software we use for mapping will be available to the public.”
Photo for Rhode Island begins the process of redistricting

Published on September 10, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

The Rhode Island General Assembly held the first meeting of the Special Commission on Reapportionment on Thursday. This is the start of a process that occurs once every ten years – where changes in population reflected in the United States Census are used to redraw the State Senate and House district maps, and to redraw the line that separates the two congressional districts.

The first order of business was to elect the two chairs of the Commission, Senator Stephen Archambault (Democrat, District 22, Smithfield, Johnston, North Providence) and Representative Robert Phillips (Democrat, District 51, Woonsocket). Though technically a vote, the selection of the chairs was a formality. Senate and House leadership had predetermined would would lead this commission when they announced the membership.

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Ahead of the meeting nearly two dozen organizations committed to good government signed onto a letter demanding a more accessible, transparent, and fair redistricting process. Perhaps responding to these concerns, Senate Chair Archambault said that he is looking forward to a process of “unprecedented transparency.”

“We’re going to great lengths to ensure that this process is a transparent one,” said Senate Chair Archambault. “Not only are these meetings open, they’re broadcast and archived. Even the software we use for mapping will be available to the public.”

Each member of the commission was issued a copy of the National Council of State Legislature’s (NCLS) Redistricting Law 2020. NCLS is a nonpartisan national group that helps state legislatures. Copies of the book are available on the NCLS website for $95 – not easily available to the public.

Recently, every House member of the Commission save Representative Katherine Kazarian (Democrat, District 63, East Providence) signed onto a letter to Governor Daniel McKee calling his mask mandate for Rhode Island health care workers “extreme and unjust.” All four Republicans at the Redistricting Commission meeting declined to wear masks during the proceedings.

The first person to testify before the Redistricting Commission was expert gerrymander-er Kimball Brace of Election Data Service Inc, a consulting firm from Virginia that will assist the commission. You can download his presentation slides here.

During his presentation Brace noted that based on current census data, State Senate Districts will ideally have 28,878 people in them while House Districts will have Around 14,632 people, plus or minus 5%. The new congressional districts will be redrawn by reapportioning Providence, so residents there may suddenly find themselves in the districts currently represented by James Langevin rather than David Cicilline, or vice versa.

During his presentation Brace indicated that since the Rhode Island General Assembly never dealt with the issue of prison redistricting, there are only limited things that can be done now. Brace called prison gerrymandering a “next decade” issue.

Commission member and former State Senator Harold Metts pushed back on this, noting that many of his former constituents are held in the prisons currently located in District 15 in Cranston. Later, during his testimony, John Marion, Executive Director of Common Cause RI noted that the Pennsylvania redistricting commission addressed prison gerrymandering without legislative action.

If the public wants to do something about prison gerrymandering in Rhode Island, they need to get very involved in this process and push the commission to address it.

Kimball Brace

The next big area of concern was Kimball Brace’s ill defined “communities of interest” as a possible criteria for redistricting. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “communities of interest” is a form of redistricting criteria described as “in some ways proxies for finding communities of common interest. These are groups of individuals who are likely to have similar legislative concerns, and who might therefore benefit from cohesive representation in the legislature.”

The possibility that “communities of interest” might be used to exacerbate inequalities rather than minimize them means that how Rhode Island defines and utilizes this concept will be a very important consideration.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 24 states “address these communities of interest directly, asking redistricting bodies to consider various types of communities in drawing district lines.”

Brace ended his presentation by announcing a website, Rhode Island Redistricting Project that will contain all maps, commission meeting videos and public comment. UpriseRI was assured that this website, though maintained by a private company, will be fully open under the Access to Public Records Act (APRA).

The rest of the meeting was public comment.

First up, John Marion, Executive Director of Common Cause RI:

Nicholas Lima, the Redistricting Coordinator from Cranston:

Dixie Sampson from the Rhode Island League of Women Voters:

Warwick resident Jordan Goyette:

One of the interesting comments made in response to Goyette came from Senator Jessica de la Cruz (Republican, District 23, Burrillville, Glocester) who said that she hopes through this process that Republicans can pick up a few more seats through gerrymandering. Senator de la Cruz had he mic off for this comment, but can just be heard in the video.

Tomás Ávila, Associate Director Rhode Island Office of Diversity, Equity & Opportunity:

Rhode Island Gubernatorial candidate Dr Luis Daniel Muñoz:

UpriseRI reporter Steve Ahlquist:

Jessica Cigna:

The next meeting of the Redistricting Commission will be Thursday, September 16 at 4pm in room 313 of the Rhode Island State House. Future meetings will be held in this room and throughout the state at sites and times to be determined.

The only member of the Redistricting Commission not present for the meeting was State Senator Ana Quezada (Democrat, District 2, Providence).

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