Editor’s note: The South County Chapter of the League of Women Voters will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States this year in a series of monthly columns in The Sun. The amendment, which gave women the right to vote, became law on Aug. 18, 1920.
The League thanks The Westerly Sun editor for publishing our “Voting Matters” monthly column during the centennial year of the women’s right to vote. 2020 has also been an election year, the year of the decennial Census, and, of the coronavirus pandemic. Our columns have covered the consequences of the Census for Rhode Island, the voting process, the new ways for citizens to vote, and the Electoral College. We close this tumultuous year with a column about redistricting, a crucial step fundamental to voting in our representative democracy.
What is redistricting? Redistricting is the process each state carries out by which boundaries for each congressional and state legislative district are redrawn. New district lines are drawn every 10 years after the Census counts the number of people in each state. Traditionally, state legislatures have been responsible for the process of redrawing the district lines, which gives a lot of power to the party in control. Since the landmark Supreme Court decision of the 1960s that established the one-person, one-vote principle, a few states have shifted the process of redrawing district lines from the legislature to a board or commission.
For congressional districts, the drawing of district lines varies. In 34 states, the state legislatures control redistricting for Congressional seats. In seven states, independent commissions are responsible for congressional redistricting, while in two states, the task falls to a commission of politicians. Finally, the remaining seven states only contain one congressional district, making the subdivision of the state into districts unnecessary.
For state legislative districts, state legislatures in 35 states are responsible for redistricting. Ten states have independent commissions, and in five states, political commissions draw state legislative district maps.
Rhode Island is one of the states where redistricting is carried out by the General Assembly, but the governor can veto the lines drawn. Since 1982, the Rhode Island General Assembly has used a consultant, Kimble Brace of Election Data services, to create districts. For the 2010 Census, Mr. Brace, along with recommendations from an 18-member advisory commission, chosen by the General Assembly, put together the districts currently being used.
So, what exactly does the voting district map of Rhode Island look like? Think of the map of the state cut into pieces like a jigsaw puzzle. As with any jigsaw puzzle, the pieces will vary: Some pieces are almost rectangular or square in shape, others look very irregular, snaking through many communities.
Why should you care? Unfortunately, history has shown repeatedly that when politicians oversee drawing the district maps, they tend to draw the lines to their own advantage. Specifically, the majority party in a state legislature can manipulate the geographic boundaries of electoral districts to give their party the majority of districts and concentrate the opposition’s voters in the fewest possible districts. Both Democrats and Republicans have done this when in power. This process of drawing district lines to favor one party is called gerrymandering and leads to a crucial question: Should politicians pick their voters, or should voters pick their politicians?
The way district lines are drawn affects who represents you. When district lines are drawn to maximize the dominance of a given party or to protect an incumbent from challengers, there are two undemocratic consequences. First, the votes of some citizens are lost; and second, non-competitive elections are created. In addition, politicians who do not need to worry about reelection are not accountable to voters and may take more extreme positons than the positions of their constituents whom they are supposed to represent. According to an analysis by the Campaign Legal Center, the current Rhode Island General Assembly is in the top 10 states of the most gerrymandered by partisanship in the country.
Many cases regarding gerrymandering have reached the Supreme Court. But in 2019, the Court ruled that redistricting was a political not a judicial matter and should be left to the states to determine the process. This decision became a call to action for the League of Women Voters and many other organizations around the country.
Beginning in 2020, the League rolled out a multiyear, nationwide campaign called People Powered Fair Maps, which is a campaign to ensure fair representation across the country. The League’s position is simple: “We believe responsibility for fair redistricting should be vested in an independent special commission, with membership that reflects the diversity of the unit of government.” The League’s campaign will not be “one size fits all,” as different states have different systems.
It is anticipated that redistricting reform will be difficult in Rhode Island because it is the General Assembly that must put the redistricting question on the ballot for voter approval. This means that the legislators who have the largest stake in the outcome control whether voters can reform it. Reform legislation was introduced in 2020 and will be reintroduced in the 2021 Rhode Island legislative session by a consortium of organizations including the League of Women Voters Rhode Island. Success will require massive citizen lobbying. An independent redistricting commission is needed to produce fair maps. Only fair maps will give voters the power to participate in the creation of voting districts and give all voters a voice in choosing the elective officials who will represent them.
Nina Rossomando is president of the League of Women Voters South County. Follow them on Facebook at facebook.com/lwvrisc.