Q&A with John Marion of Common Cause on Redistricting in Rhode Island
1. Can you describe the work the Special Commission on Reapportionment has done?
“They’ve met, six times so far. Going around the state, taking testimony from people concerning what the map should look like. But the Commission has not publicly presented any maps. Starting next week it is expected that they will present three or more sets of maps and take them around the state seeking input from the public. They are required by law to choose a plan which is a set of maps and then the legislature has to vote.”
2. What could the Commission do to improve the quality of elections for Rhode Islanders?
“They could continue to do what they seem to be doing, which is taking public input. Besides the public hearings the Commission is allowing members of the public to use the computers that will be used to do the redistricting and draw their own maps and submit them.”
“The Commission should also be publicly debating and trying to rank the criteria that they plan to use and consider when drawing the plans. There are many different legal criteria that must be satisfied but also political criteria that may be taken into account including political competiveness considerations.”
3. What about the process by which the Commission was picked?
“Common Cause favors instituting a process that creates an independent commission. We disagree with the fact that there are legislators on the commission. We would also prefer if the public members chosen to be members of the Commission were not chosen by legislators.”
4. Do you believe the public hearings are/will be adequate to address any concerns about redistricting?
“Yes, the public hearings are sufficient as long as the input from the public at the hearings is taken into account by the Commission. We are starting to see a little bit of a compressed timetable which is too bad. But in terms of the quantity and the manner in which they have been advertised the hearings appear to be sufficient .”
5. Why did RI not participate in the Census 2010 Redistricting Data Program?
“I’ve heard a variety of answers. One was that it would cost the state money, although I haven’t seen any proof of that. But we have never really gotten a good answer. The state has never said why it did not participate.”
Redistricting is always critical to the political process in states. Congressional redistricting can change the complexion of Congress as well as have a tremendous impact on national and local issues based on who is elected. The process of “redistricting occurs every ten years to account for population changes.”
Rhode Island is no different, “[t]he state’s Constitution requires the General Assembly to ‘reapportion representation in the House and the Senate after each decennial U.S. Census with districts of nearly equal population and territorial compactness . . . ’” Rhode Island, has 537 total voting districts “[b]ut for reasons that are not yet clear, the state did not participate in the Census 2010 Redistricting Data program, so these districts are not reflected in the Census Bureau’s files, only the current 75 House and 38 Senate districts.”
In order to ensure that the redistricting process is orderly, a committee known as the Special Commission on Reapportionment was created. Legislation passed by both houses of the RI legislature “instructs the commission to create districts that are as compact and contiguous as possible, taking into account ‘natural, historical, geographical and municipal and other political lines, as well as the right of all Rhode Islanders to fair representation and equal access to the political process.’”
The Commission is “made up of 12 state lawmakers and 6 members of the general public, is charged with using the latest census data to propose new lines that will be voted on next year by the General Assembly” in order that “the elections later next year reflect the new district boundaries.” The makeup of the Commission is as follows: Speaker of the House Gordon Fox selected Reps. Stephen R. Ucci, D-Johnston; Grace Diaz, D-Providence; Donald J. Lally Jr., D-Narragansett; and William San Bento Jr., D-Pawtucket.
Fox also named Felix Appolonia, a small business operator from West Warwick who is also a West Warwick Planning Board member and chairman of the town’s Democratic Town Committee; Ray Rickman, a Providence resident and former state representative who is president of the Rickman Group, a Providence consulting firm; and Delia Rodriguez-Masjoan, a Providence resident who has been active in the Latino and immigrant community and currently hosts two weekly Spanish radio talk shows.
Senate President, and fellow Democrat, Teresa Paiva Weed has chosen Sens. Michael J. McCaffrey, D-Warwick; Mary Ellen Goodwin, D-Providence; Beatrice Lanzi, D-Cranston; and Juan M. Pichardo, D-Providence. Paiva Weed has also tapped “Francis J. Flanagan, a Middletown resident who serves in the Navy Reserve and is a Judge Advocate General; Matthew F Gunnip, a Pawtucket resident who is a social caseworker with the Department of Children, Youth and Families; and Arthur V. Strother, of Providence, who is a retired communications technician” for the Commission.
The Republican “House Minority Leader Brian C. Newberry has chosen Reps. Joseph A. Trillo, of Warwick, and Daniel P. Reilly, of Portsmouth; and Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere has chosen Sen. David E. Bates, of Barrington, and Sen. Francis T. Maher Jr., of Exeter.
This Special Commission on Reapportionment is hopefully going to make the redistricting process more equitable. There has been much criticism of the process in Rhode Island. John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, claims that the “state has one of the ‘most partisan’ redistricting processes in the country.” Marion continues his critique stating that, “the process falls short when it comes to protecting the interests of minorities.”
This panel is “holding . . . meetings around the state to gather public comments and is expected to submit recommended changes to the General Assembly in January. Lawmakers must approve any changes to political districts.”
Written by a third-year law student at William & Mary.