December 9, 2021 Letter

With the publication of the United States Census each decade, Rhode Island reviews the apportionment of Congressional and State legislative districts based on population changes. Consistent with past practice, the General Assembly appointed a joint commission of State Representatives and Senators to review and prepare a recommended reapportionment map based on the 2020 Census to revise the boundaries of legislative districts for the 2022 elections. The proposed map must comply with the requirements of the Rhode Island and United States Constitutions and the Rhode Island General Laws, which provide among other things that the districts should (1) be contiguous, (2) reflect “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” and (3) be based a combination of the same set of precincts, each of which contains at least 100 voters. Rhode Island’s Commission is scheduled to deliver a proposal for by January 15, 2022 for the General Assembly to review for approval.

In some states (such as California and Michigan), the legislature delegates this responsibility to independent commissions, which serves the policy goal of removing the potential bias of incumbent elected officials. When legislators make redistricting decisions themselves, those decisions can be scrutinized through the lenses of political self-interest and/or partisanship, leading to charges of “gerrymandering.” As a legislator, I am personally uncomfortable with my role in this process, as I believe it is best when the voters choose their elected officials, rather than the other way around. With this in mind, as a member of the Providence City Council in 2012, I worked with Common Cause to introduce and gain voter approval of revisions to the Providence Home Rule Charter to advance fair redistricting processes, as described in this Providence Journal Op-Ed.

In any event, the process is moving forward for Rhode Island General Assembly districts. On December 2, the Commission’s consultant presented two alternative maps that you can review at the Redistricting Commission’s website. In both maps, portions of Senate District 3 are moved into neighboring Senate District 15, which currently borders us on the Pawtucket line at Hillside Avenue. In one map (“Map A”), a group of precincts west of Hope Street and north of Forest Street move from District 3 into District 15, while in the other map (“Map B”), the precincts that shift from District 3 into District 15 reach down into the junction of Rochambeau Avenue and Blackstone Boulevard.

The redistricting consultant provided me with this explanation for the two proposed maps. District 3 has to be reduced in size, because already was larger in population than the state average in 2010, and since then has grown in population at a greater rate than the State as a whole. Also, neighboring District 6 (Mount Hope and South Providence) had to be adjusted on the East Side because it must maintain its identity as a diverse voting population, and some of the neighborhoods on the East Side have become less diverse due to gentrification. (It has been reported in the media that Senator Mack, who represents District 6, has objected to the way in which the redistricting maps affect the Mount Hope neighborhood.) Also, it would be undesirable for a voting district from East Providence to expand into Providence, crossing the Seekonk River. Given these constraints, District 3 is bounded by Districts 6 and 15, meaning that it must yield neighborhoods to District 15 to comply with these constraints.

For the reasons I stated above, I am not inclined to micromanage the redistricting process, or choose among the voters currently in District 3. I told the consultant that I believe the current configuration of District 3 (as it has been for the past ten years) accurately captures traditional neighborhoods, because it essentially contains the bulk of the East Side (minus Mount Hope), and all of the voters are Providence residents. For that reason, I believe the subtractions of either neighborhood in Plan A or Plan B into a Pawtucket-based senatorial district are less desirable for the affected residents; however, the constraints just described appear to require some version of this. With that said, there may be an alternative that is superior to both Plan A and Plan B. Also, I told the consultant that I thought proposed Plan A’s set of precincts that could move from District 3 into District 15 were more “compact” and similar to each other than the collection of neighborhoods that would make this move under proposed Plan B. It is worth noting that the redistricting process as a whole in other parts of the State might have ramifications for the composition of the East Side’s districts. With that said, you as residents have the right to share your views with the Redistricting Commission. You can do that by clicking on the link above for their website, and entering your public comments in the area provided for that purpose.