AP NEWS

Reform group proposes new way to draw legislative districts

February 4, 2020 GMT

A government reform group in Rhode Island is trying to change the way legislative district lines are drawn in the state after the census.

Common Cause Rhode Island is asking state lawmakers to support a constitutional amendment to create an independent redistricting commission, rather than continuing to allow the legislature to create the commission and fill most seats with incumbent legislators.

Legislation proposing the change has been introduced by Democratic lawmakers and co-sponsored by Republican leaders.

Democrats overwhelmingly dominate Rhode Island’s legislature. They have historically used the redistricting process to build upon their partisan advantage, John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said Tuesday.

“The current system allows politicians to choose their voters, which is a fundamental conflict of interest because they will use their power to draw themselves safe seats and gerrymander their political and partisan opponents,” he said. “The only way to overcome that fundamental conflict of interest is to take lawmakers out of the process.”

Rhode Island had the third-highest percentage nationally of uncontested legislative races in 2018, according to a mathematical analysis by The Associated Press. The “efficiency gap” test used by the AP showed a modest advantage for Democrats in Rhode Island.

While gerrymandering could be a factor in some districts, experts say, the Democratic Party’s dominance and the Republican Party’s weakness also helps to explain why there are so many uncontested races.

Common Cause is proposing that Rhode Island create a redistricting commission modeled on the process in California, where people would apply to be on it, then be screened for conflicts of interest, such as being related to a lawmaker, serving as a party official or working as a lobbyist, Marion said.

The first six commission members would be chosen in a lottery; then those six would choose nine more.

Marion acknowledges that getting current lawmakers to support an effort to take their own power away will be challenging — Common Cause has planned an event at the Statehouse for Wednesday to unveil a website about gerrymandering in Rhode Island, designed to educate voters and build public pressure.

Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, Treasurer Seth Magaziner, the bill sponsors and leaders from the League of Women Voters and NAACP Providence Branch plan to attend in support.

“Redistricting should provide Rhode Islanders with representation that mirrors their community,” Gorbea said in a statement Tuesday. “I applaud Common Cause’s effort to make the redistricting process more representative of the diversity that makes Rhode Island so great.”

Magaziner said it’s a good government reform that “will allow voters to choose their elected officials instead of elected officials choosing their voters.”

The state Senate will focus on redistricting after the census, according to a spokesman. The House speaker’s office didn’t immediately respond to a question Tuesday about the speaker’s stance on changing the redistricting process.

Marion said this is the last opportunity to reform Rhode Island’s system before the next round of redistricting occurs after the 2020 Census.

Common Cause has suggested reforms before but did not go so far as to propose removing lawmakers from the redistricting process. Rhode Island’s secretary of state in 1983 proposed a constitutional amendment for an independent commission, but the effort went nowhere, Marion said.