Common Cause on redistricting in Rhode Island

Common Cause on redistricting in Rhode Island

Common Cause testimony on redistricting in Rhode Island

Today, May 19th, Common Cause executive director John Marion gave the following testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on S 924, a bill to create the official reapportionment commission for our state:

Reapportionment and redistricting are crucially important exercises in our democratic system of government. Reapportionment, the process of ensuring that districts are of equal population is at the heart of the principle of “one person, one vote” that we enjoy because of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Redistricting, the process of drawing political boundaries, has been the subject of mischief for the two centuries since the original gerrymander occurred in Massachusetts in 1811.

Rhode Island has one of the most partisan, and least constrained redistricting processes in the United States. This bill would just continue the same partisan and legislatively dominated process we have seen in decades past. I would like to take this opportunity to point out some of the glaring weaknesses in the bill.

The commission, as proposed, consists of 18 members; four each appointed by the Speaker and President and two each by the Minority leaders of the respective chambers. The remaining six members of the commission will come from what the bill describes as the “public,” but who are chosen by the Speaker and President respectively.

This design guarantees a partisan process with no independence. With a majority of seats (14 of 18) being chosen by leadership of the majority party, partisan redistricting cannot be prevented. And with public members being chosen by legislative leadership, without any stated process for citizens to apply for the seats, there is no measure of independence from legislative control. Under the proposed commission the real public has no confidence they are being represented in this process. Six states use independent commission where the legislature does not have control of the appointments, and the American Bar Association recommends that all states follow suit.

Additionally, while the legislation laudably proposes public hearings, no standards are set for the number or location. Given the impact of the redistricting and reapportionment processes on every citizen of Rhode Island, some minimum number and geographical dispersion should be articulated in the bill. Furthermore, public comment needs to be taken before the draft plan is created (as is specified in the proposed statute), as well as after the plans are drawn, so that the public can have maximum input. I have submitted model legislation designed by the Campaign Legal Center that deals with some of these issues regarding public access to the process.

The most important part of the legislation are the standards its sets for the redistricting process. Almost every state has a commission that must abide by stricter standards than those proposed here. The proposed legislation sets a bare minimum of standards. Other jurisdictions seek greater equality of population (2% rather than the legal maximum of 5%) for reapportioning state legislative districts. Other states add greater definition to the measures of compactness and contiguity. The use of minimum standards for reapportionment, and opaque definitions of compactness and contiguity allow for maximum flexibility in gerrymandering.

When it comes to protecting the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, this bill again falls short. 24 states give greater emphasis to providing representation for the historically underrepresented by mandating that “communities of interest” are taken into consideration. The proposed commission does not have any requirements for diversity in the membership of the commissioners.

The standards the commission abides by should be prioritized in the legislation. Without a ranking the standards relative weights cannot be given to the priorities. The commission, the public, and the courts who may eventually pass judgment on a plan do not know what to expect.

As you can see we have a lot of problems with how this is being done. We are happy to work with the sponsor and the committee to improve this bill and improve this process.