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Redistricting reform bill faces ‘uphill’ battle

Redraw RI campaign seeks to create independent redistricting commission

A movement to create an independent redistricting committee to help fix heavy partisan gerrymandering in Rhode Island is likely to face opposition from legislative leadership who currently control the redistricting process, said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.

Common Cause Rhode Island is spearheading the Redraw RI campaign in support of a proposed state constitutional amendment to create an independent redistricting commission. “I think the legislative leadership is very skeptical and won’t want to give up their power,” Marion said. The state legislature currently oversees its redistricting process. This system, Marion added, “distorts democracy.”

The Ocean State has long been racked by issues of gerrymandering. The Rhode Island maps were found to be partisan gerrymanders in 1972, 1982, 1992 and 2002, according to two measures of partisan gerrymandering  from PlanScore data.

A study from the University of Chicago Law School found that Rhode Island’s 2012 House of Representative plan was the most robust case of Democratically partisan gerrymandering in the nation, using the “efficiency gap” metric. This metric is a standard for measuring partisan gerrymandering, and was a significant factor in Common Cause’s transition from a watchdog role to a more hands-on approach with Redraw RI, Marion said.

The amendment specifically calls for a 15-member independent commission, representing both major political parties along with unaffiliated voters. According to the campaign website, the commission would be driven by criteria such as population equality and geographical compactness.

If the joint resolution passes for bills S2077 and H7260, the independent redistricting proposal will be on the Nov. 3 ballot, where a majority of voters will also have to vote to create the commission.

If enacted, the new independent commission and an appointed consultant would use the 2020 Census data results to assist with the drawing of legislative districts. The first elections based on the new maps would take place in 2022.

Common Cause has partnered with the Rhode Island chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the League of Women Voters for the campaign. According to Marion, Clean Water Action, Latino Policy Institute and Generation Citizen have all agreed to work with Common Cause, and he hopes to add more groups to the list as the campaign progresses.

Jim Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the NAACP, emphasized the need for a “fair, objective way to draw district lines in light of a recent (population) increase in communities of color.”

Fair redistricting and combatting partisan gerrymandering is a major initiative for the League of Women Voters both nationally and at a state level according to President of the League of Women Voters Jane Koster, who also spoke at the kickoff. “It is about putting the power back in the hands of the people,” she said.

Without the amendment, the Joint Redistricting Committee will continue to lead the redistricting process. Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello (D - Cranston) and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D - Providence, North Providence) currently control the appointments to the JRC.

The legislative leadership also wields significant control over the appointment of a consultant who draws the districts. The Joint Committee on Legislative Services, the body that controls the administrative and financial responsibilities of the Rhode Island General Assembly is also in charge of hiring the election consultant who redraws state district maps following the census held every 10 years. The members of the committee include the Speaker of the House who acts as the Chairman, the President of the Senate who acts as the Vice-Chairman, the House Majority Leader, the House Minority Leader and the Senate Minority Leader.

The Speaker is the driving force behind the committee’s decisions, said Representative Brian Newberry (R - Burrillville, North Smithfield). Newberry is a sponsor of the House bill and served as the House Minority Leader from May 2011 to Nov. 2016.

Speaker of the House Mattiello has “not taken a position on the Redraw Rhode Island proposal,” Larry Berman, director of the communications for the Speaker, wrote in an email to The Herald.

For the Senate President, this issue isn’t a priority because redistricting “does not take place until after the Census,” wrote Greg Paré, director of communications for Ruggerio, in an email to The Herald. “This year he is focused on the Census.”

Representative Joseph Shekarchi (D- Warwick) has not formalized an opinion on the legislation, nor has he heard concerns from constituents about redistricting in the state. “No one has ever brought forward any concerns — right or wrong, good or bad — about the process,” Shekarchi said. “I want to hear all points of view before I form a position on it.”

The amendment to create an independent redistricting committee would strip the legislative leadership of their appointment of both members of the redistricting committee and the ability to choose the redistricting consultant.

Newberry feels that the bills are very unlikely to pass. “I want to be clear I am not (opposing the bills),” he added. “I support the bill, I am just telling you the reality.”

Current House Minority Leader, Representative Blake Filippi (R - Block Island, Charlestown and parts of South Kingstown and Westerly) agreed that the prediction that the joint resolution will die in committee is “a safe assumption ... but crazier things have happened in this state.” Filippi is a co-sponsor of the House bill.

Representative Jason Knight (D - Barrington, Warren), another House co-sponsor, remains uncertain about the proposed amendment’s chance of success. “It is a major paradigm shift for it to be passed,” he said. “And, like every paradigm shift, I think it has an uphill climb that’s going to depend on the strength of the advocacy for it.”

Marion, of Common Cause, hopes to mobilize community support to sway legislative leaders to support the proposed amendment. “We are going to have to convince them this is what their constituents want.”


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