Politics & Elections

Redistricting Redux: How RI’s redistricting process could wreak havoc on progressive movements and divide communities

Progressive groups have been moving towards electorialism while still engaging in other important organizing work like education and direct action. That shift underscores the importance of the redistricting process as a tool for progressive electoral power in Rhode Island. In the fight against inequality, political bias in redistricting plays a key role, as the conservative Democratic incumbents who control the state legislature will again try to redraw maps to benefit their own electoral chances first and foremost.
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Published on October 25, 2021
By Saraphina Forman and Peder Schaefer

The following piece originally ran in The College Hill Independent, reprinted with permission.


Midway through a Providence County meeting of the Rhode Island redistricting commission, former state representative Joe Almeida turned to Ryan Taylor, a white election consultant hired by the state, pointed his finger at him, and asked, “How many people of color you got working for you?” 

The answer? “None.”

That was only one of a number of noteable moments at the public hearing last Monday, where community organizers, civic leaders, and citizens spoke to Rhode Island’s 18-person redistricting commission: a group of legislators predominantly appointed by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Speaker of the House Joseph Shekarchi, two conservative Democrats. The public attendees sought to make their voices heard on the most pivotal of issues in a redrawing of our electoral and political boundaries that only happens every ten years.

Almeida said that he was at the meeting to “make sure the minority community is represented.” Dixie Sampson, a member of the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, was there to ensure that “the people who have lived in the community a long time are the ones to map it.” Andrew Poyant, a candidate for City Council, came to the microphone with a child in tow and told the commission that their family’s Elmwood neighborhood shouldn’t be split between three districts. Lenny Cioe, candidate for State Senate District 4 against Ruggerio, told the history of redistricting gone wrong in the 1980s, when the Democratic party tried to draw maps to benefit incumbents and reduce POC representation. He said that greedy legislators “are dividing up communities just in their grab for power.”

The committee members pushed back against the suggestion that they are political props—at one point former-Senator Harold Metts, who lost in 2020 to progressive Tiara Mack, said “I’m not anyone’s lackey”—but the voices of the community begged the question: who really controls redistricting in Rhode Island? And what does it mean for movements for justice in the state?

The stakes

For decades, organizers in Rhode Island have been working to bring attention to issues like housing for all, action on climate change, and reimagining Rhode Island’s regressive income tax policy. Even though Rhode Island is a ‘blue’ state, state policy doesn’t reflect many of the policy values that national Democratic voters hold, nor the organizing energy and needs of local communities. For example,  Democratic leadership in the state’s House and Senate do not support policies like Medicare for All or a Green New Deal, and some are even anti-abortion. In response, progressive groups with electoral leanings—such as the RI Political Cooperative, the Providence branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, and Reclaim RI—are working to challenge more conservative Democrats in local Democratic primaries, trying to take the energy and momentum built up by organizers on frontline communities and turn it into policy at the State House.

Next year, dozens of progressives are planning to run for office across the state, marking 2022 as a potential ‘make it or break it’ year for progressive electoral power in Rhode Island. It’s into this progressive wave that the politically thorny question of redistricting in 2021 enters. 

In the US, redistricting happens every 10 years, after the completion of the most recent Census. Following the 2020 Census, state legislatures across the country—including Rhode Island—have begun to redraw these state-level electoral districts taking into account the new data. The 2022 election will be the first election under the new redistricting maps.

Electoral politics and community organizing don’t have to be at odds. Instead, with the needs of frontline communities centered, electoral organizing can be generative, as progressive electoral victories and changes in government policy at the State House further empower local activists to protest, educate, and organize with their neighbors. For example, groups like the People’s Port Authority, which works to stop the construction and expansion of fossil fuel facilities in the Port of Providence, have begun to throw their support behind electoral movements like the Rhode Island Political Cooperative (RIPC). Monica Huertas, an organizer with the People’s Port Authority, ran for office with the help of RIPC in 2018 while continuing to do community organizing and engaging in a Climate Justice Plan, hoping to reimagine the port of Providence with the needs of frontline communities emphasized. 

Progressive groups have been moving towards electorialism while still engaging in other important organizing work like education and direct action. That shift underscores the importance of the redistricting process as a tool for progressive electoral power in Rhode Island. In the fight against inequality, political bias in redistricting plays a key role, as the conservative Democratic incumbents who control the state legislature will again try to redraw maps to benefit their own electoral chances first and foremost.

Rhode Island politics is dominated by the conservative Rhode Island Democratic Party and long-time conservative politicians such as Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, Speaker of the House Joseph Shekarchi, and Chairman of the Democratic Party Joe McNamara. Like most states, Rhode Island does not use an independent redistricting commission. Instead, Ruggerio and Shekarchi appoint 12 of the members to an 18-person commission that, while ostensibly charged by state law with getting ‘community input’ from throughout the state, unilaterally prepares a redistricting map that the Rhode Island General Assembly must then approve. The politicians who control the State House are the same politicians who will redraw the boundaries, and in the face of a progressive electoral coalition that is growing in strength and power, they will try and shift the boundaries to protect themselves, if they can. 

At stake is the conservative or progressive control of the Rhode Island General Assembly, but also questions of political representation for Rhode Island’s growing Latinx population: how the “mixed-race” designation on the Census impacts POC representation, and how incarcerated peoples are assigned to districts, or disenfranchised, by the drawing of new maps. In Rhode Island, redistricting is another tool being used by the conservative ‘old boys’ club’ to keep progressive movements that are fighting against income inequality, action on climate change, and a more progressive taxation system at bay. 

By studying the process of political redistricting and the power tensions inherent within, progressive organizers can be better prepared to fight against such electoral malfeasance. 

Gerrymandering basics

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing political districts to give certain parties advantages in elections. Coined in an 1812 political cartoon emphasizing the absurdity of Massachusetts politician Elbridge Gerry’s salamander-shaped district, gerrymandering is not as fun as its name makes it sound.

Many gerrymanderers use a process called ‘packing’ and ‘cracking’ to manipulate political outcomes. Members of a redistricting commission can ‘pack’ many voters of the opposing party into a small number of districts and then ‘crack’ the rest of the electorate by making the desirable party a slim majority in the remaining districts. No matter how voters are distributed, it is nearly always possible for district-drawers to manipulate maps to benefit their own party. 

For example, conservative Democrats in Rhode Island could ‘pack’ progressives into a small number of districts concentrated around colleges and universities and ‘crack’ the rest of the districts so that conservatives eke out a slim majority. This could dilute the voting power of progressives.

Sometimes, packing and cracking is not even intentional. For instance, the Latinx population in Rhode Island has been growing over the last decade, but it has been mostly concentrated in Central Falls and South Providence. This means that it is difficult to draw maps that don’t ‘pack’ the Latinx community into a small number of districts, limiting the electoral power of Latinx voters. Gerrymandering is illegal, but beyond a failure to comply with the Voting Rights Act, it is mainly up to states to decide what counts as gerrymandering. Rhode Island’s state statutes stipulate that districts must be contiguous, or connected. The state constitution additionally specifies that communities of interests should be “preserved” and districts must be “compact.” But what does this mean? This vagueness provides an opportunity for states to sign off on biased districting plans.

Political geometers, such as Moon Duchin, a researcher and founder of the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group (MGGG) at Tufts University, use math to combat the problem of biased maps. One of the most viable methods for assessing the degree to which districts are biased and for creating fair plans, according to Duchin, is the sampling method. This works by running algorithms to generate “reasonably imperfect” maps, seeing how biased they are in favor of a certain party, and then seeing if the actual map is an outlier. The bias of a districting plan is determined by weighing it against other plans that fit the given constraints of the same region. Probabilistic models like Markov chains and random walking can help with these computations. Sampling can be used to assess a host of different biases, be they partisan, racial, or other.

The mathematics of redistricting is a fairly recent field that has been rapidly developing. Statistical tools more capable of determining bias can allow for more voter empowerment, but only if the commissions and consultants they hire choose to use them. Another result of new technology is increased transparency in the redistricting process. For example, MGGG has created Districtr, an online tool where anyone can try drawing the districts for themselves for redistricting commissions to take into account. All of this allows communities to have more of a say in political decisions that will affect them and create fairer boundaries—but only if people in power let them.  

Rhode Island redistricting gone wrong

John Marion is the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, a public-interest lobbying organization that seeks to encourage accountability, transparency, and ethics within government. Marion has worked on issues of ethics reform and redistricting in the RI General Assembly for years.

“Right now we have a [redistricting] commission that is 100 percent appointed by the legislature,” Marion told the College Hill Independent. Of the 18 seats on the redistricting commission, 12 are required by law to be current legislators, and there are no conflict of interest rules for any member of the commission. For Marion, the question of whether or not the commission is unbiased is moot. “They choose people who are loyal to the legislature’s point of view,” he told the Indy. That “point of view” is decidedly conservative, in line with the conservative politicians who selected them.

In the months before the COVID pandemic, Marion and Common Cause were working on a campaign to push Rhode Island toward an independent redistricting commission. He says that instead of the current redistricting process, independent experts should be hired by the state. However, implementing an independent redistricting commission in Rhode Island would be difficult—an amendment to the state constitution would need to pass with a simple majority through both houses of the General Assembly and then pass by referendum from the voters. In short, the legislature would have to vote for something that would take its own power away. Marion said the few states with independent redistricting commissions had referendum laws that meant enough signatures could get an issue on the ballot. That’s not the case in Rhode Island—all referenda must first pass the General Assembly—and after COVID hit, Common Cause’s campaign for independent redistricting was dead in the water. 

Now it’s too late to mandate an independent redistricting commission in Rhode Island, and for at least the next ten years, Rhode Island’s political boundaries will be drawn by a commission compromised by conflicts of interest. Legislators on the commission will protect their own seats or try and change district boundaries to benefit themselves, such as pro-life Democrat Harold Metts, who lost to progressive Senator Tiara Mack in 2020. 

One issue brought up by Metts again and again was how to district people who are incarcerated in the Adult Correctional Institute (ACI)—the Cranston-based complex where all of Rhode Island’s prisons are located. For decades, Rhode Island has engaged in racist prison gerrymandering, in which people incarcerated in the ACI—unable to vote under state law—are placed into only two districts, disproportionately increasing the voting power of the surrounding residents. Every district is meant to have roughly the same number of people, but increasing the number of people in a district with incarcerated individuals who cannot vote increases the voting power of the other individuals in the district. This makes it so a local politician has to expend less energy and funding on canvassing voters, because there are fewer voters in the district, and each voter they do reach out to will have disproportionate power compared to individuals in other districts. The districts that have incarcerated individuals within them—State Senate districts 27 and 31 and House district 15 and 20—have voters with additional voting power. On the other hand, the home districts of incarcerated individuals, who are disproportionately POC, lose voting power. 

The commission has called prison gerrymandering a “next decade” issue that the legislature needs to act on, but Marion with Common Cause has testified to the committee that Pennsylvania dealt with prison gerrymandering without any legislative action. Metts, a member of the redistricting committee, has pushed for action on prison gerrymandering, but nothing has happened yet. 

Frustrations with the committee don’t end with prison gerrymandering. The redistricting commission has hired Kimball Brace, a well-known Democratic consultant who has been used by blue-leaning redistricting commissions across the country to draw maps that benefit Democrats. Brace has worked with his company, Election Data Services, in over 30 states and has been regularly hired by Rhode Island’s legislature since the 1980s. He’s infamous for his GMANDR license plate and was even the subject of a Daily Show skit in 2013 in which he portrayed himself as an artist engaged in using data as his medium of expression. According to a 2015 study by political scientists Nicholas Stephanopoulos and Eric McGhee from University of Chicago, Rhode Island is one of the most effectively gerrymandered states in favor of conservative Democrats in the country. Brace’s work is in large part the reason for that distinction.

When the Indy asked Brace point-blank if he was planning to gerrymander the state for the conservative Democrats who had hired him, Brace pushed back. “I don’t gerrymander. I draw districts,” he told the Indy. “People may think I’m gerrymandering, but any change of a line is the potential gerrymander in some people’s minds.” He acknowledged that he has a deep history in redistricting across the country and that some folks disagree with the lines he’s helped draw, but he emphasized that “the more you’re involved with redistricting, you’ll learn that everything is in the eye of the beholder.” As far as the progressive versus conservative split in Rhode Island, Brace said, “Yes, I recognize that there are progressives and conservatives, but that’s not of interest to me. You’re trying to create a compromise. You’re trying to create something that will get the most votes in the legislature. That’s what’s key.” Any maps that Brace creates with the redistricting commission will have to be approved by the General Assembly. What he failed to mention is that the Rhode Island General Assembly is already dominated by conservative Democrats who have the votes to alter or pass whatever maps they please.

Meanwhile, MGGG, Moon Duchin’s political geometry lab, hosts trainings on Districtr several times a month, makes sure their codes are widely available, and prioritizes the feedback they receive from public portals. Most of the time, MGGG is asked by states to create district plans, and they sometimes evaluate additional states “for fun.” In these evaluations, MGGG assesses plans that community members create on Districtr and uses that input as a central component in their district drawing process, as opposed to the mostly data-driven and legislator approved methods of RI’s commission.

However, Chanel Richardson, a research analyst and software developer at MGGG, told the Indy, “Unfortunately, because we are a small lab, a lot of the time we just do exactly what we’re asked to do.” That means that “if someone from Rhode Island isn’t contacting [MGGG] to say ‘Hey, can you do this sort of evaluation for us?’” then MGGG will not work on redistricting that state.

Even though Rhode Islanders have access to redistricting programs like Districtr and are able to provide community input through public hearings and drawing maps on the state redistricting commission’s website, that doesn’t mean that community input will be used by the mapmakers. “[The redistricting commission] has the appearance of transparency because they have more public hearings and are seemingly taking the public input,” said Marion. “But [whether] they take that into account when the maps are actually drawn is not clear.” Marion said that in many states with independent redistricting commissions, the maps are drawn at public hearings in front of community members, but in Rhode Island, consultants like Brace and Election Data Services draw maps behind closed doors. It’s unclear what the exact relationship is between the consultants and the members of the commission and how often they have independent meetings to work on the redistricting maps. While the public has access to the same data and map-drawing tools as the consultants, whether public input is actually heard is uncertain. 

As for the fate of progressive politicians biting their nails about the redistricting plans being drawn by conservative Democrats, Marion said there’s not much progressives can do until after the maps are first released to the public, near the beginning of December. Progressive Democrats, especially those who voted against or are running against leadership in the Senate, could be at risk of faulty redistricting that favors the incumbents. At that point, Marion said progressives have two options: they can try and rally public opinion against the biased maps, shaming the members of the commission into making changes, or they can sue under the Voting Rights Act. Lawsuits have worked in the past—in the 1980s a lawsuit against Rhode Island Democratic Party Chairman Rocco Quattrocchi led to changes in the entire state redistricting scheme, and a separate lawsuit by a progressive city councillor saved his ward. But that litigation only works half of the time.

For now, progressive politicians will have to see what the conservative-domianted redistricting commission and Brace come up with.

A Progressive Case Study: Lenny Cioe

A Lenny Cioe victory against Dominick Ruggerio in the 2022 Democratic primary would have an outsized impact on progressive politics in Rhode Island. Ruggerio has fought against expansions to Medicare benefits for Rhode Islanders for decades, is backed by the NRA, and voted against codifying Roe vs. Wade into state law in 2019. He’s also fiscally supported dozens of conservative Senate Democrats across the state—most campaign donations come through Ruggerio first, as the Senate President—meaning his loss would cut the head off a campaign apparatus that is meant to benefit those in power and their priorities most.

Redistricting is a potent tool Ruggerio could use to try and stay in power, and it shows how local communities are threatened by gerrymandering. For example, Cioe pointed out that if he is “districted out, it would divide the Kennedy School community in half.” Likewise, “it will cut the Fruithill community in half.” Dividing communities is a form of ‘cracking,’ weakening the voting power of these groups. It’ll be important to closely watch what the redistricting commission decides in Cioe’s district as an indicator of wider trends of political redistricting in Rhode Island. 

Cioe ran against Ruggerio in 2020 and lost by a slim margin. Ruggerio got 54.7 percent of total votes while Cioe got 45.3 percent. However, in the city of Providence, Cioe got 61.1 percent compared to Ruggerio’s 38.9 percent. Cioe won five of the nine precincts, most of them concentrated in the more southern part of Providence, while Ruggerio won four in the northern section. For example, in Precinct 2410 (North Providence Youth Center), Ruggerio got 69.7 percent to Cioe’s 30.3 percent. However, in Precinct 2844 (Providence College, Schneider Arena), Cioe got 65.0 percent of the votes to Ruggerio’s 35.0 percent. The precincts nearer to Providence College voted for the progressive candidate in much higher numbers. This shows how even small changes in district location have tremendous impacts on election results because of the communities clustered in certain areas.

Cioe is a progressive Democrat and a member of the RI Political Cooperative, and he made talking to communities a goal of his last campaign. He supports an independent redistricting commission and emphasizes that “redistricting should not be about a grab for power; it should be about holding communities together.”

At the committee hearing, Cioe spoke. He told the story of Rocco Quattrocchi, a Democratic Party Chairman in the 1980s who had redrawn the district maps to benefit himself and other Democrats while decreasing POC representation in the State House. “Senator Dominick Ruggerio and Representative Joseph Shekarchi are dipping into Rocco’s political playbook,” said Cioe. “They’re handpicking people to be on this board to do their bidding for their power grab and to divide up communities without regard to the people of Rhode Island.”

Members of the committee appointed by Ruggerio and Shekarchi, such as Alvin Reyes and Antonio Lopes, pushed back against Cioe’s assertion that they were there to do Ruggerio’s bidding, stating they were independent of any political pressures. Cioe responded that a truly independent redistricting commission would have members appointed by Rhode Island’s Attorney General, not the legislature. Ruggerio was not present at the meeting.

In one ear and out the other

At the end of the period of public testimony at the redistricting commission hearing in Providence, Enrique Sanchez, an organizer with the Black Lives Matter RI PAC, spoke. He called out Metts for being an appointee of Ruggerio’s on the commission, there to do his “bidding.” After a back and forth with different members of the commission, including Kaprece Ransaw telling Sanchez to “respect your elders,” Sanchez retired to the back of the room, his points made. Senator Stephen Archambault, chairman of the commission, silently shook his head. 

Nearly a dozen people spoke at the committee hearing. But whether or not their perspective will actually be integrated into the maps is a separate matter, a matter that will have telling implications for the electoral power of progressive movements in Rhode Island in 2022 and the future of legislation—a Green New Deal, affordable housing, progressive income taxes—that our communities need.

So, for now, progressives wait, the meetings go on, and they hope against hope that the members of the committee will truly keep their word and refuse to do anyone’s bidding.

Good luck, Rhode Island.

PEDER SCHAEFER & SARAPHINA FORMAN think that Rhode Island’s flawed redistricting process is a point in favor of an anarchist society, in which no redistricting is necessary.

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