By John Marion
The common refrain heard in the State House early morning on July 1 was “have a nice summer.” Normally the end of June brings a six-month break from the politics of the General Assembly. But not this year – this will be the summer of redistricting.
Nothing sets a political junkie’s heart a-twitter quite like redistricting. It’s all about the most fundamental element of politics – power. But this struggle for power has far-reaching consequences for the type of representation we receive. Redistricting appeals to the basest political instincts and impacts our highest democratic ideals.
Because we primarily use single-member districts in our republican form of government in the United States, we’re faced with the need to ensure that each district contains roughly the same number of people, and to adjust accordingly after each census. In fact the actual commission that will oversee the process in Rhode Island has “reapportionment” in its name – that is the primary goal. That is because the U.S. Supreme Court interprets the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to guarantee the right of “one man, one vote.”
Equal population is something we take for granted in the redistricting process today. But it has only been in the last half-century, since the advent of the so-called “reapportionment revolution,” that this basic concept has been in place. Prior to the 1960s, it was accepted practice for rural districts to be drastically under-populated compared to urban districts.
Rhode Island was at the head of the class when it came to malapportionment, too. As Scott McKay wrote in a retrospective piece about Rhode Island political history, a century ago,
The foundation of Republican control in the state rested on perhaps the most malapportioned General Assembly in America: Providence, with 30,000 voters, had one senator, as did Little Compton, which once elected a state senator with 78 votes.
The result was that 7.5% of Rhode Island’s population once controlled the legislature. That would be like having just the senators from Cranston controlling an entire legislative chamber. (Insert a funny joke at the expense of the people of Cranston here.)
The reapportionment part of redistricting isn’t very difficult. If you want to see how malapportioned things have become in the last decade because of populations shifts in Rhode Island, check out these nifty maps created by The Providence Journal and these maps by the Prov Plan.
The only malapportionment controversy left involves prisoners – yes, prisoners. A movement is afoot to count prisoners at their last known address rather than where they are incarcerated. In fact, according the Prison Policy Initiative, Rhode Island has the most malapportioned state legislative districts in the nation because its ACI is located on one campus.
Supporters of this movement, including Common Cause, believe that you should be counted where you chose to live and not where you are being held. Opponents say that prisoners use community resources and therefore should be counted in Cranston – or at least they said that until a prisoner at the ACI tried to register his child in the Cranston schools.
But reapportionment is not even half the story of redistricting. It’s essentially a simple math problem. The really interesting part involves where the lines are drawn. He (or she) who controls the lines, controls the power.
The commission that is being formed to draw those lines in Rhode Island is 100% controlled by the legislature itself. In other lines of work that is called an “inside job.” Again, we’re in dubious company; one political scientist labels our process for drawing the maps as among the most partisan with among the fewest standards in the United States.
We’re among the most partisan because we allow the majority party to control the process through its appointments to the commission. We have the fewest standards because the constitutional and statutory language on the subject in Rhode Island is few and far between. In Rhode Island, those who draw the lines are required to make compact and contiguous districts that follow historical boundaries, and to the best they can, nest House districts into Senate districts. Notably absent is any standard that prevents the commission from considering political factors such as partisan turnout or incumbent home address. (See “Job, Inside,” above.)
So what do we get for such a system? Well, we get elections that are less competitive. And many a dissertation has been written showing the electoral competitiveness changes all sorts of things, such as the quality of the person in office, and the type of public policy they create when they get there.
So that is why we need to beware, beware the gerrymander. You can still go to the beach this summer, but when you get back don’t be surprised if the next election has already been decided.
John Marion is executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.
(drawing via Commentarama)