Rhode Island’s congressional and state legislative lines are drawn by the state legislature as a regular statute, subject to gubernatorial veto. The state also has an 18-member advisory commission. The state Senate President and Speaker of the House each choose four commissioners: one member of the legislature and three non-legislators. The state Senate and state House minority leaders each choose two additional commissioners. In 2021, this commission recommended congressional and state legislative plans to the legislature, which could adopt, modify, or ignore the commission’s proposals.

Community of Interest Story

Organizations noted that prison gerrymandering advocacy was an impactful example of community involvement. This work was focused on Cranston, RI which houses the state prison system. Common Cause, ACLU-RI, Prison Policy Initiative, Black Lives Matter PAC, and Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) coordinated organizing efforts and recruited affected communities to provide testimony on the impact prison gerrymandering had on their lives. DARE also conducted grassroots organizing events across Providence.

Outside of prison gerrymandering efforts, very few people were interested and willing to draw COI maps. The advisory commission held more than a dozen hearings throughout the state which were simulcast on Capitol TV and live-streamed. The commission only advertised the hearings through their normal channels (Twitter, Facebook) and did not do any community outreach. Some incumbent members of the legislature mentioned the hearings in their campaign newsletters. The commission and Common Cause Rhode Island made an online tool available for drawing COI and full maps. Efforts were made once the draft maps were released, and some communities were upset about portions of the maps. Coalition advocates submitted approximately a dozen COI maps on the state website.

Overall State Grade: C-

Local Grade in Providence: B

Inadequate public engagement: The state created a website to store redistricting information but did almost nothing to promote the site or public hearing schedule. Advocates stated that the commission did not deliberate about the maps in public or seem to consider any testimony when drawing the final maps. Additionally, the commission often posted notices or changed sessions at the last minute. This left organizations feeling unprepared and could have impacted community involvement.

Lack of language accessibility: The state commission featured Spanish speakers, but all hearings were only broadcast in English, and advocates did not see any interpretation resources available. Although the state may have struggled to provide language support, the city of Providence encouraged residents to use Representable because of the platform’s functionality in Spanish.

Lessons Learned:

  • Shifting priorities during pandemic created challenges: The COVID-19 pandemic created several challenges during the 2021 redistricting cycle. The organizations working on redistricting stopped meeting at the beginning of the pandemic and did not find a good virtual platform to continue meeting. The state commission allowed written testimony to be submitted online but had no opportunity for live testimony over virtual platforms. The state and organizations should address the need for better tech and digital options for community involvement in future cycles.
  • Steps were made towards complete prison gerrymandering reform: In early 2022, the state redistricting commission voted to count a portion of the Adult Correctional Institute (ACI) population at their home residence for state and congressional districts. This change accounts for roughly 44% of people currently incarcerated. Advocates credited the turnout for the special prison gerrymandering hearing and decades of advocacy as partially responsible for this vote. Organizations continue to press for complete prison gerrymandering reform ahead of the 2031 process.
  • More investment in public education is needed: Organizations in the state understand the need to build organizing capacity for redistricting. In 2021, the state lacked grassroots engagement, and advocates reflected that they should have prioritized this aspect of the redistricting work.
  • Clarity on Voting Rights Act analysis is important: Advocates said they needed to be better prepared to conduct a Voting Rights Act analysis once official maps were released. Several national groups had initially offered but, due to timelines and other priorities, did not have a chance to help Rhode Island with this request. It will be important to identify in-state analysts before 2031.